Friday


In my recent post Mass Extinction in the West Asian Cluster I discussed Eric H. Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, and in that discussion I characterized the Late Bronze Age (LBA) simultaneous collapse of many civilized societies as a “mass extinction” of civilizations. In the exposition of my argument I first formulated the following idea:

“…civilization in the region likely developed in a kind of reticulate pattern, rather than in a unitary and linear manner, so that, if we were in possession of all the evidence, we might find a series of developments took place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating in a single civilization. Developments were likely distributed across the several different civilizations, and disseminated by idea diffusion until they reached all the others. This could be called a seriation of distributed development.”

This idea, as I now see, can be understood on its own as a distinctive process of complex adaptive systems, applicable not only to civilizations, but also to a range of emergent complexities like life, consciousness, and intelligence as well.

Now I’d like to apply this idea to life, and life under the special circumstances (not presently obtaining within our own planetary system, though that may have been the case in the past) of a multi-planet ecosystem. What, then, is a multi-planet ecosystem?

When the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system was discovered, with seven smallish, rocky planets tightly orbiting a small star, the possibilities for life here were of immediate interest to astrobiologists. It has long been thought that lithopanspermia (the transfer of life between planets on rocks) may have occurred within our solar system between Venus, Earth, and Mars — all smallish, rocky planets relatively close in to the sun, and which are known to have have exchanged ejecta from collisions. With an even greater number of small rocky planets in even closer proximity, the likelihood of lithopanspermia at TRAPPIST-1 (assuming life is present in some form) would seem to be higher than in our solar system.

I already know of two papers on the possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system, Enhanced interplanetary panspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system by Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb, and Fast litho-panspermia in the habitable zone of the TRAPPIST-1 system, by Sebastiaan Krijt, Timothy J. Bowling, Richard J. Lyons, and Fred J. Ciesla. There is also a paper about the possibilities for botany in the system, Comparative Climates of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system: results from a simple climate-vegetation model by Tommaso Alberti, Vincenzo Carbone, Fabio Lepreti, and Antonio Vecchio.

In a couple of Tumblr posts, More is Different and Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I discussed some of these possibilities of lithopanspermia in the TRAPPIST-1 system. (And the same interesting TRAPPIST-1 system was also discussed on The Unseen Podcast Episode 69 — A Taste of TRAPPIST-1.)

In More is Different I wrote…

“It may well prove that more is different when it comes to planets, their biospheres, and ecosystems spanning multiple planets. Multi-planet ecologies (we can’t call them biospheres, because they would be constituted by multiple biospheres) may produce qualitatively distinct emergents based on the greater number of components of the ecosystem so constituted. Emergent complexities not possible in a planetary system like our own, with a single liquid-water world, may be possible where there are multiple such planets ecologically coupled through lithopanspermia, and perhaps through other vectors that we cannot now imagine.”

…and in Yet Another Astrobiology Thought Experiment I wrote…

“If life arose separately on several closely spaced planets, with slight biochemical differences between the distinct origin of life events on the several planets, and circumstances within that planetary system were conducive to lithopanspermia, this would mean that each of the planets would eventually have tinctures of life from the other planets, and if these varieties of life could live together without destroying each other, the mixed biospheres of multi-planetary habitable zones where there has been independent origins of life on multiple worlds would suggest a diversity of life not realized on Earth.”

If we combine the ideas of a multi-planetary ecosystem with the idea of reticulate distributed development (which I introduced in relation to civilizational development), we can immediately see the possibility of a multi-planetary ecosystem in which life remains in nearly continuous interaction across several different planets. In such a complex astrobiological context, the great macroevolutionary transitions would not necessarily need to occur all within a single biosphere. It would be sufficient that the macroevolutionary transition took place on at least one planet of the multi-planetary ecosystem, and was subsequently distributed to the other planets of the ecosystem by lithopanspermia. The result would be a seriation of distributed development, i.e., a series of developments taking place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating on a single planet, in a single biosphere. Is this even possible?

We know that microbial life is remarkably resilient, and could likely make the lithopanspermatic journey from one planet to another, but could anything more complex than microbial life make this journey? Recently Caleb A. Scharf in Complex Life: Wimpy or Tough? Complex life may be less resilient than microbial life by some measures, but it’s not necessarily cosmically delicate questions the received wisdom of assuming that eukaryotic multi-cellular life is too vulnerable and delicate to survive “hurdles of selection” — and certainly panspermia must be among the most vertiginous of such hurdles. What about, for example, if conditions were right to freeze complex cells into a still-liquid chamber within a rock, deep in a protected crevice, which then could travel to another planet with complex life intact? There must be similar vectors for panspermia of which we are unaware simply because our imagination fails us.

Obviously, such an occurrence would require many circumstances to occur in just the right order and in just the right way. When this happens for us, as human beings, we say that things are “just right,” and we invoke anthropic selection effects as an explanation, which in this case is simply a Kantian transcendental argument as applied to human beings. But conditions also might be “just right” for some other kind of life, and the antecedent circumstances for such life would be the transcendental conditions of that life — a selection effect of life as we do not know it. This wouldn’t be an “anthropic” explanation in the narrow sense, but if we formalized the concept of an anthropic explanation so that it applied to any being whatsoever, then what human beings call an anthropic explanation would be a special case among a class of explanations. And in this class of explanations would be the “just right” conditions that might lead to rapid and enhanced lithopanspermia among closely spaced planets, which allowed for the transfer to complex life among these planets.

The idea of panspermia has made us familiar with the possibility of life originating on one world and subsequently developing on another world. In case of enhanced and rapid lithopanspermia in an astrobiological context “just right” for such life, we might find life originating on one planet, achieving photosynthesis on another planet, becoming multi-cellular on a third planet, developing an endoskeleton on yet another planet, and so on, possibly continuing to develop into intelligent life. This is what I mean by a seriation of distributed evolutionary development.

If this is possible, if complex life can pass between planets in a multi-planetary ecosystem, I suspect that the rate of evolutionary change would be at least somewhat accelerated in this reticulate astrobiological context, much as the development of civilization was arguably accelerated in the west Asian cluster as a result of the continual interaction of the several civilizations of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and the eastern Mediterranean.

And as life goes, so goes civilization predicated upon life. In a multi-planetary ecosystem, a civilization that grew up on one of these worlds would evolve in a unique astrobiological context that would shape its unique development. Darwin said that, “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Civilizations, too, bear the lowly stamp of their biological origins. A biocentric civilization emergent within a multi-planetary ecosystem would be distinctively shaped by the selection pressures of this ecosystem, which would not be the same as the selection pressures of a single biosphere. And a technocentric civilization arising from a biocentric civilization would continue to carry the lowly stamp of its origins into the farthest reaches of its development.

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Wednesday


biosphere 0

In Rational Reconstructions of Time I noted that stellar evolution takes place on a scale of time many orders of magnitude greater than the human scale of time, but that we are able to reconstruct stellar evolution by looking into the cosmos and, among the billions of stars we can see, picking out examples of stars in various stages of their evolution and sequencing these stages in a kind of astrophysical seriation. Similarly, the geology of Earth takes place on a scale of time many orders of magnitude removed from human scales of time, but we have been able to reconstruct the history of our planet through a careful study of those traces of evidence not wiped away by subsequent geological processes. Moreover, our growing knowledge of exoplanetary systems is providing a context in which the geological history of Earth can be understood. We are a long way from understanding planet formation and development, but we know much more than we did prior to exoplanet discoveries.

The evolution of a biosphere, like the evolution of stars, takes place at a scale of time many orders of magnitude beyond the human scale of time, and, as with stellar evolution, it is only relatively recently that human beings have been able to reconstruct the history of the biosphere of their homeworld. This began with the emergence of scientific geology in the eighteenth century with the work of James Hutton, and accelerated considerably with the nineteenth century work of Charles Lyell. Scientific paleontology, starting with Cuvier, also contributed significantly to understanding the natural history of the biosphere. A more detailed understanding of biosphere evolution has begun to emerge with the systematic application of the methods of scientific historiography. The use of varve chronology for dating annual glacial deposits, dendrochronology, and the Blytt–Sernander system for dating the layers in peat bogs, date to the late nineteenth century; carbon-14 dating, and other methods based on nuclear science, date to the middle of the twentieth century. The study of ice cores from Antarctica has proved to be especially valuable in reconstruction past climatology and atmosphere composition.

The only way to understand biospheric evolution is through the reconstruction of that evolution on the basis of evidence available to us in the present. This includes the reconstruction of past geology, climatology, oceanography, etc. — all Earth “systems,” as it were — which, together with life, constitute the biosphere. We have been able to reconstruct the history of life on Earth not from fossils alone, but from the structure of our genome, which carries within itself a history. This genetic historiography has pushed back the history of the origins of life through molecular phylogeny to the very earliest living organisms on Earth. For example, in July 2016 Nature Microbiology published “The physiology and habitat of the last universal common ancestor” by Madeline C. Weiss, Filipa L. Sousa, Natalia Mrnjavac, Sinje Neukirchen, Mayo Roettger, Shijulal Nelson-Sathi, and William F. Martin (cf. the popular exposition “LUCA, the Ancestor of All Life on Earth: A new genetic analysis points to hydrothermal vents as the planet’s first habitat” by Dirk Schulze-Makuch; also We’ve been wrong about the origins of life for 90 years by Arunas L. Radzvilavicius) showing that recent work in molecular phylogeny points to ocean floor hydrothermal vents as the likely point of origin for life on Earth.

This earliest history of life on Earth — that terrestrial life that is the most different from life as we know it today — is of great interest to us in reconstructing the history of the biosphere. If life began on Earth from a single hydrothermal vent at the bottom of an ocean, life would have spread outward from that point, the biosphere spreading and also thickening as it worked its way down in the lithosphere and as it eventually floated free in the atmosphere. If, on the other hand, life originated in an Oparin ocean, or on the surface of the land, or in something like Darwin’s “warm little pond” (an idea which might be extended to tidepools and shallows), the process by which the biosphere spread to assume its present form of “planetary scale life” (a phrase employed by David Grinspoon) would be different in each case. If the evolution of planetary scale life is indeed different in each case, it is entirely possible that life on Earth is an outlier not because it is the only life in the universe (the rare Earth hypothesis), but because life of Earth may have arisen by a distinct process, or attained planetary scale by a distinct mechanism, not to be found among other living worlds in the cosmos. We simply do not know at present.

Once life originated at some particular point on Earth’s surface, or deep in the oceans, and it expanded to become planetary scale life, there seems to have been a period of time when life consisted primarily of horizontal gene transfer (a synchronic mechanism of life, as it were), before the mechanisms of species individuation with vertical gene transfer and descent with modification (a diachronic mechanism of life). It is now thought the the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) will only be able to be traced back to this moment of transition in the history of life, but this is an area of active research, and we simply do not yet know how it will play out. But if we could visit many different worlds in the earliest stages of the formation of their respective biospheres, we would be able to track this transition, which may occur differently in different biospheres. Or it may not occur at all, and a given biosphere might remain at the level of microbial life, experiencing little or no further development of emergent complexity, until it ceased to be habitable.

While we can be confident that later emergent complexities must wait for earlier emergent complexities to emerge first, no other biosphere is going to experience the same stages of development as Earth’s biosphere, because the development of the biosphere is a function of a confluence of contingent circumstances. The history of a biosphere is the unique fingerprint of life upon its homeworld. Any other planet will have different gravity, different albedo, different axial tilt, axial precession, orbital eccentricity, and orbital precession, and I have explained elsewhere how these cycles function as speciation pumps. The history of life on Earth has also been shaped by catastrophic events like extraterrestrial impacts and episodes of supervolcano eruptions. It was for reasons such as this that Stephen J. Gould said that life on Earth as we know it is, “…the result of a series of highly contingent events that would not happen again if we could rewind the tape.”

Understanding Earth’s biosphere — the particularities of its origins and the sequence of its development — is only the tip of the iceberg of reconstructing biospheres. Ultimately we will need to understand Earth’s biosphere in the context of any possible biosphere, and to do this we will need to understand the different possibilities for the origins of life and for possible sequences of development. There may be several classes of world constituted exclusively with life in the form of microbial mats. Suggestive of this, Abel Mendez wrote on Twitter, “A habitable planet for microbial life is not necessarily habitable too for complex life such as plants and animals.” I responded to this with, “Eventually we will have a taxonomy of biospheres that will distinguish exclusively microbial worlds from others…” And our taxonomy of biospheres will have to go far beyond this, mapping out typical sequences of development from the origins of life to the emergence of intelligence and civilization, when life begins to take control of its own destiny. On our planet, we call this transition the Anthropocene, but we can see from placing the idea in this astrobiological context that the Anthropocene is a kind of threshold event that could have its parallel in any biosphere productive of an intelligent species that becomes the progenitor of a civilization. Thus planetary scale life is, in the case of the Anthropocene, followed by planetary scale intelligence and planetary scale civilization.

levels of biological organization

Ultimately, our taxonomy of the biosphere must transcend the biosphere and consider circumstellar habitable zones (CHZ) and galactic habitable zones (GHZ). In present biological thought, the biosphere is the top level of biological organization; in astrobiological thought, we must become accustomed to yet higher levels of biological organization. We do not yet know if there has been an exchange of life between the bodies of our planetary system (this has been posited, but not yet proved), in the form of lithopanspermia, but whether or not it is instantiated here, it is likely instantiated in some planetary system somewhere in the cosmos, and in such planetary systems the top level of biological organization will be interplanetary. We can go beyond this as well, positing the possibility of an interstellar level of biological organization, whether by lithopanspermia or by some other mechanism (which could include the technological mechanism of a spacefaring civilization; starships may prove to be the ultimate sweepstakes dispersion vector). Given the possibility of multiple distinct interplanetary and interstellar levels of biological organization, we may be able to formulate taxonomies of CHZs for various planetary systems and GHZs for various galaxies.

One can imagine some future interstellar probe that, upon arrival at a planetary system, or at a planet known to possess a biosphere (something we would know long before we arrived), would immediately gather as many microorganisms as possible, perhaps simply by sampling the atmosphere or oceans, and then run the genetic code of these organisms through an onboard supercomputer, and, within hours, or at most days, of arrival, much of the history of the biosphere of that planet would be known through molecular phylogeny. A full understanding of the biospheric evolution (or CHZ evolution) would have to await coring samples from the lithosphere and cryosphere of the planet or planets, and, but the time we have the technology to organize such an endeavor, this may be possible as well. At an ever further future reach of technology, an intergalactic probe arriving at another galaxy might disperse further probes to scatter throughout the galaxy in order to determine if there is any galactic level biological organization.

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Folk Astrobiology

6 August 2016

Saturday


If some alien species had encountered Earth during one of its snowball periods, the planet would have resembled a biosphere with a single biome.

If some alien species had encountered Earth during one of its snowball periods, the planet would have resembled a biosphere with a single biome.

Can there be folk concepts in (and of) recent and sophisticated scientific thought, such as astrobiology? Astrobiology is a recent discipline, and as such is a beneficiary of a long history of the development of scientific disciplines; in other words, astrobiology stands on the shoulders of giants. In From an Astrobiological Point of View I characterized astrobiology as the fourth and latest of four revolutions in the life sciences, preceded by Darwinism, genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (i.e., evo-devo). Can there be folk concepts that influence such a recent scientific discipline?

In Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress and Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization I considered the possibility of folk concepts unique to a scientific civilization, and the folk concepts of recent sciences like astrobiology constitute paradigmatic examples of folk concepts unique to scientific civilization. The concepts of folk astrobiology, far being being rare, have proliferated as science fiction has proliferated and made a place for itself in contemporary culture, especially in film and television.

One idea of folk astrobiology that is familiar from countless science fiction films is that of planets the biosphere of which is dominated by a single biome. Both Frank Herbert’s planet Arrakis from the novel Dune and the planets Tatooine and Jakku from Star Wars are primarily desert planets, whereas the Star Wars planet Dagobah is primarily swamp, the planet Kamino is a global ocean, and the planet Hoth is primarily arctic. Two worlds that appear in the Alien films, Zeta Reticuli exomoon LV-426 in Alien and Aliens and LV-223 in Prometheus, are both desolate, rocky, and barren, like the landscapes we have come to expect from the robotic exploration of the other worlds in our own solar system.

The knowledge we have assembled of the long-term history of the biosphere of Earth, that our planet has passed through “hothouse” and “icehouse” stages, suggest it is reasonable to suppose that we will find similar conditions elsewhere in the universe, though Earth today has a wide variety of biomes that make up its biosphere. We should expect to find worlds both with diverse biospheres and with biospheres primarily constituted by a single biome. Perhaps this idea of folk astrobiology will someday be formalized, when we know more about the evolution of biospheres of multiple worlds, and we have the data to plot a bell curve of small, rocky, wet planets in the habitable zone of their star. This bell curve almost certainly exists, we just don’t know as yet where Earth falls on the curve and what kinds of worlds populate the remainder of the curve.

Biosphere diversity is thus a familiar concept of folk astrobiology. But let me backtrack a bit and try to formulate more clearly an explication of folk astrobiology.

In an earlier post I quoted the following definition of folk biology:

Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world. Humans everywhere classify animals and plants into species-like groups as obvious to a modern scientist as to a Maya Indian. Such groups are primary loci for thinking about biological causes and relations (Mayr 1969). Historically, they provided a transtheoretical base for scientific biology in that different theories — including evolutionary theory — have sought to account for the apparent constancy of “common species” and the organic processes centering on them. In addition, these preferred groups have “from the most remote period… been classed in groups under groups” (Darwin 1859: 431). This taxonomic array provides a natural framework for inference, and an inductive compendium of information, about organic categories and properties. It is not as conventional or arbitrary in structure and content, nor as variable across cultures, as the assembly of entities into cosmologies, materials, or social groups. From the vantage of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, such natural systems are arguably routine “habits of mind,” in part a natural selection for grasping relevant and recurrent “habits of the world.”

Robert Andrew Wilson and Frank C. Keil, The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences

And here is a NASA definition of astrobiology that I have previously quoted:

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”

Drawing on both of these definitions — “Folk biology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the organic world” and “Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe” — we can formulate a fairly succinct definition of folk astrobiology:

Folk astrobiology is the cognitive study of how people classify and reason about the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

I hope that the reader immediately sees how common this exercise is, both in scientific and non-scientific thought. On the scientific side, folk astrobiology is pervasively present in the background assumptions of SETI, while on the non-scientific side, as we have seen above in examples drawn from scientific fiction films, folk astrobiology informs our depiction of other worlds and their inhabitants. These concepts of folk astrobiology are underdetermined by astrobiology, but well grounded in common sense and scientific knowledge as far as it extends today. We will only be able to fully redeem these ideas for science when we have empirical data from many worlds. We will begin to accumulate this data when, in the near future, we are able to get spectroscopic readings from exoplanet atmospheres, but that is only the thin edge of the wedge. Robust data sets for the evolution of multiple independent biospheres will have to await interstellar travel. (This is one reason that I suggested that a starship would be the ultimate scientific instrument; cf. The Interstellar Imperative.)

Folk astrobiology remains “folk” until its concepts are fully formalized as part of a rigorous scientific discipline. As few disciplines ever attain complete rigor (logic and mathematics have come closest to converging on that goal), there is always a trace of folk thought that survives in, and is even propagated along with, scientific thought. Folk concepts and scientific concepts, then, are not mutually exclusive, but rather they overlap and intersect in a Wittgensteinian fashion. However, the legacy of positivism has often encouraged us to see folk concepts and scientific concepts as mutually exclusive, and if one adopts the principle that scientific concepts must be reductionist, therefore no non-reductionist concepts are not scientific, then it follows that most folk concepts are eliminated when a body of knowledge is made scientifically rigorous (I will not further develop this idea at present, but I hope to return to it when I can formulate it with greater precision).

We have a sophisticated contemporary biological science, and thus scientific biological concepts are ready to hand to employ in astrobiology, so that astrobiology has an early advantage in converging upon scientific rigor. But if a science aspires to transcend its origins and to establish itself as a new science co-equal with its progenitors, it must be prepared to go beyond familiar concepts, and in this case this means going beyond the sophisticated concepts of contemporary biology in order to establish truly astrobiological scientific concepts, i.e., uniquely astrobiological concepts, and these distinctive and novel concepts must then, in their turn, converge on scientific rigor. In the case of astrobiology, this may mean formulating a “natural history” where “nature” is construed as to include the whole of the universe, and this idea transcends the familiar idea of natural history, forcing the astrobiologist to account for cosmology as well as biology.

As an example of an uniquely astrobiology concept I above suggested the idea of biosphere diversity. Biosphere diversity, in turn, is related to ideas of biosphere evolution, developmental stages on planets with later emergent complexities, and so on. The several posts I have written to date on planetary endemism (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and more to come) may be considered expositions of the folk astrobiological idea of planetary endemism. Similarly, the homeworld concept is both a folk concept of astrobiology and scientific civilization (cf. The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung, Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space, and The Martian Standpoint).

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The idea of a homeworld is a folk concept of astrobiology and scientific civilization.

The idea of a homeworld is a folk concept of astrobiology and scientific civilization.

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Wednesday


Biophilia

In The Biocentric Thesis I gave an explicit formulation of the idea that civilizations of the Stelliferous Era originate in the actions of biological agents — actually, I gave two formulations, a weak and a strong, each with a corollary. What I failed to explicitly note in that post was that, in explicitly formulating the biocentric thesis, the idea of biocentricity is not confined to describing the biocentric thesis. In other words, we can identify as “biocentric” some state-of-affairs (presumably a civilization, or, more narrowly, an institution) regardless whether this state-of-affairs exemplifies the biocentric thesis. Thus the concept of the biocentric has a much wider scope than the biocentric thesis specifically.

It is worthwhile to make this distinction because the biocentric thesis is a particular idea about the origin of civilization (an extrapolation of Darwin’s thesis to astrobiological scope) while the idea of the biocentric, being of greater scope, has much wider applicability. If the biocentric thesis is true, that is to say, if all civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces (or, in its strong form, if all civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces), then biocentrism is not merely a feature of the human condition, it is the condition from which any and all civilizations originate (i.e., it is the common condition of eocivilization).

What is the human relationship to biocentrism beyond a narrowly conceived biocentric thesis on the origins of civilization? In my post Astrobiology Thought Experiment I wrote:

“…I have been trying to get at the human affinity to the rest of life on Earth, and trying to get at it in a primarily visceral sense in order to get around the hopeless tangle of rationalization and cognitive bias that we have painstakingly erected around the idea of humanity.”

What I called “the human affinity for the rest of life on Earth” is also known as biophilia. E. O. Wilson’s initial exposition of the idea of biophilia defined the term as meaning, “…the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” This appears on the very first page of his book Biophilia. Elsewhere, in his book The Diversity of Life, Wilson has defined biophilia as, “…the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”

In formulating the idea of biophilia Wilson already anticipated the extrapolation of biophilia beyond terrestrial life. (Though Wilson’s term biophilia has rapidly gained currency and has been widely discussed, his original vision embracing a biophilia not limited to Earth has not enjoyed the same level of interest.) Also on the first page of Biophilia is this brief reflection on extraterrestrial life:

“From infancy we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light. Novelty and diversity are particularly esteemed; the mere mention of the word extraterrestrial evokes reveries about still unexplored life, displacing the old and once potent exotic that drew earlier generations to remote islands and jungled interiors.”

Wilson, E. O., Biophilia: the Human Bond with Other Species, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 1.

It seems likely that we would naturally extrapolate both our biophilic and biophobic reactions to any extraterrestrial life we may find. However, it is also likely that, in our encounters with extraterrestrial life in the future, there may be instances in which we cannot as clearly distinguish between the animate and the inanimate as we can with terrestrial life. Our biophilic intuitions may need to be educated and augmented if they are to applied beyond terrestrial life, just as our mathematical intuitions are educated and augmented when we learn advanced mathematical concepts that were no part of our intuitive endowment of mathematical knowledge (we can cite geometrical intuition as an instance of the latter). Unlike the example of educating our mathematical intuitions, however, we cannot educate and augment our biophilic and biophobic reactions without actually traveling to other biospheres and learning directly about other lifeforms, preferably in their native habitats. In other words, progress in biology is ultimately predicated upon progress in space travel. This is implicit in the very idea of astrobiology.

An interest in life as yet unexplored implies the possibility of xenophilia as a special case of biophilia. Wilson seems to unproblematically assume that this is the case, but I have regarded this as an open question. For example, in Terrestrial Bias: Thought Experiments I wrote:

“Is life itself, regardless of its origins, of value to our biophilic minds, or are our anthropogenic minds so focused on differential survival and reproduction of homo sapiens that life itself is an abstract idea that can find no purchase in our sentiments? How far does biophilia extend? Is biophilia really only terrestrial biophilia? Is xenophilia possible for terrestrially evolved minds?”

We can we a bit more systematic about this: we can distinguish between biophilia in a narrow sense and biophilia in an extended sense, and the meaning of biophilia can be extended in more than one way. Biophilia in its narrowest sense is the affinity that human beings have for other terrestrial life. The generalization of this narrow sense of biophilia would be human affinity for all life, wherever that life may be found (as implied by E. O. Wilson). The formalization of the narrow sense of biophilia would be the affinity that any intelligent agent would feel for the biota of its homeworld, and from this formalizaton we can deduce the possibility of a particular intelligent species with its affinity for its particular homeworld (and this is a distinct concept than the purely formal concept of any species’ affinity for its homeworld). The formalization of the generalization of human biophilia would be affinity that any intelligent biological being would have for any life to be found in the universe. These are the permutations of biophilia, and each permutation may be regarded as an open question inviting further research.

Biophilia in the extended sense of the formalization of human biophilia (the affinity that any biological being would have for the biota of its homeworld) can be taken as a foundational posit of cognitive astrobiology, as predictable in shaping minds as natural selection is predictable in shaping bodies. Biophilia is the cognitive expression of biocentrism, and in so far as biocentrism is likely to typify any intelligent biological being, any intelligent biological being is likely to embody the same kind of biophilia found among human beings. In this sense, biophilia is a central phenomenon of cognitive astrobiology.

However, we can also posit that any intelligent agent that builds a technological civilization, and eventually a spacefaring civilization by technological means, will have, to some degree, marginalized native biophilia to the extent that this is necessary in order for a class of persons in this civilization to be fully immersed in a technological milieu. I take this latter condition to be a sine qua non of the development of advanced technological capabilities; perhaps this idea — i.e., the idea of at least one class of persons under the umbrella of a larger society to be immersed in a technological milieu — demands independent analysis and exposition. This I will reserve for a future post.

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The Biocentric Thesis

19 July 2016

Tuesday


The biocentric character of contemporary civilization is strikingly evident in aerial photographs.

The biocentric character of contemporary civilization is strikingly evident in aerial photographs.

The Centrality of Biology to Civilization

Beyond the formulation of the biological conception of civilization and the ecological conception of civilization, both of which employ concepts from biology, we can identify a particular thesis (or particular theses) addressing the centrality of biological relationships and biological entities to civilization (as we have known civilization to date). I have expressed the centrality of biology to civilization as the biocentric thesis.

Although I have not previously formulated the biocentric thesis explicitly (here I will attempt to do this) though I have used the idea many times. Previously I wrote about biocentric civilizations in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization, Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, and Another Way to Think about Civilization, inter alia, without attempting to clarify my use of “biocentric,” while in The Biological Conception of Civilization and The Ecological Conception of Civilization I considered biologically-derived conceptions of civilization.

Even our mythologies have involved the close association of human beings with fellow biological beings, as in this depiction of the earthly paradise. ('The garden of Eden with the fall of man,' Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1615)

Even our mythologies have involved the close association of human beings with fellow biological beings, as in this depiction of the earthly paradise. (‘The garden of Eden with the fall of man,’ Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1615)

On Being Biological

Let us begin with the basics: human beings, the progenitors of terrestrial civilization, are biological. Being ourselves biological entities, human life has been integral with the biological world from which it arose. We live by consuming other biological entities, and, when we die, our bodies decompose and their constituents are reintegrated with the biological world from which we sprang. When human beings began the civilizational project, we remained integral with the biological world, exapting it for our new-found purposes, which involved the tightly-coupled coevolutionary cohort of species that I employed as the biological conception of civilization. In western thought it as been traditional to oppose nature to culture, but, being biological, we understand our civilization by understanding ourselves, and we understand ourselves by understanding biology.

Biology is both an old and a young science. Plato had little use for biology, and in reading Plato’s dialogues one could be forgiven for supposing that the Greeks had ever lived in any condition other than a civilization in which nature is kept at a certain distance. Aristotle, on the contrary, was a careful observer of nature, thus we may say that biology as science goes back at least to Aristotle’s treatises The History of Animals, On the Parts of Animals, On the Motion of Animals, and On the Gait of Animals.

Biology in its contemporary form goes back to Darwin, from which time biology has rapidly advanced and is today a mature science, as sophisticated in its own way as particle physics. And while we do not usually think of the growing rigor and sophistication of a body of scientific knowledge as an exercise in introspection, in the case of biology we can think of it in this way — if only we have the hardihood to apply what we have learned from biology to ourselves and to our biologically-based civilization. Because we are biological beings, knowledge of biology is knowledge of ourselves.

In this photograph we not only see the human imprint on the landscape, but also the projection of human civilization into Earth orbit.

In this photograph we not only see the human imprint on the landscape, but also the projection of human civilization into Earth orbit.

Being Biological in an Astrobiological Context

Astrobiology is a very young science, but in so far as it takes up the torch of biology and extrapolates biological concepts to their ultimate cosmological context, astrobiology is simply a greatly expanded biology, and in this sense not a new science at all. In From an Astrobiological Point of View I characterized the emergence of astrobiology in this spirit of continuity as the fourth of four great revolutions in biology, the previous three revolutions being Darwinism, Mendelian genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology (better known as “evo-devo”).

In the context of astrobiology, understanding the conditions for life in the universe is a greatly expanded form of human introspection, in which an evolving body of scientific knowledge has the capability of demonstrating the cosmological context of human life. Once again, in understanding astrobiology we can better understand ourselves, if only we have the willingness to understand ourselves scientifically. Beyond understanding ourselves, astrobiology also holds the promise of better understanding our civilization. An astrobiological formulation of the biological conception of civilization would extrapolate this conception of civilization to a cosmological scope.

In Astrobiology is island biogeography writ large I suggested that spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography, which is an application of the principle that technology is the pursuit of biology by other means. Given technologically-enabled spaceflight (made possible by a technological civilization), terrestrial life can expand beyond Earth and beyond our planetary system to other worlds, just as the innovation of flight made it possible for terrestrial organisms (even those that do not fly) to establish themselves on distant, isolated islands — hence the analogy between biogeographical distribution patterns and astrobiological distribution patterns. This is still a biocentric paradigm, but extrapolated to cosmological scope.

8x10.ai

Biocentric Theses

With these considerations of what it means to be a biological being in an astrobiological context, I will attempt an explicit formulation of weak and strong biocentric theses. All of these formulations involve what I have earlier called planetary endemism.

The Weak Biocentric Thesis

All civilizations during the Stelliferous Era begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces.

This thesis is “weak” because it addresses only civilizations during the Stelliferous Era. A corollary of the weak biocentric thesis excludes the possibility of any Stelliferous Era civilization that does not arise from biology, as follows:

Corollary of the Weak Biocentric Thesis

No civilizations during the Stelliferous Era existed prior to the advent of Stelliferous Era biota.

The weak biocentric thesis and its corollary implies a strong biocentric thesis, not limited to the Stelliferous Era:

The Strong Biocentric Thesis

All civilizations in our universe begin as biocentric civilizations originating on planetary surfaces.

The strong biocentric thesis also has a strong corollary:

Corollary of the Strong Biocentric Thesis

No civilizations existed in our universe prior to the biocentric civilizations of Stelliferous Era.

Both strong and weak biocentric theses and their corollaries entail that the emergent complexity of civilization arises from the previous emergent complexity of life, and, in their strongest formulations, that it could be no other way. This excludes the possibility that there exist forms of emergent complexity other than life — sufficiently distinct from life as we know it than any identification of this emergent complexity as life would be problematic — from which civilization might independently arise. This is a rather sweeping claim, and, though it is supported by our parochial knowledge of life and civilization on Earth, it would be quite a stretch to assert this for the universe entire. On the other hand, we would still want to entertain this possibility, as there may be universes in which the only emergent complexity upon which civilization can supervene is life, more or less as we know it.

If the Strong Biocentric Thesis and its corollary are true, then there are no pre-Stelliferous Era civilizations, and all post-Stelliferous Era civilizations are derived from Stelliferous Era civilizations having their origins in planetary endemism. Post-Stelliferous Era civilizations would include Degenerate Era civilizations, Black Hole Era civilizations, and Dark Era civilizations. This might be formulated as another thesis in turn.

According to this understanding of civilization, the Stelliferous Era is uniquely generative of civilizations. In so far as we understand civilizations to belong to a suite of emergent complexities, we might say instead that the Stelliferous Era is uniquely generative of emergent complexity. At least, we say that now, prior to the emergent complexities unique to the Degenerate Era. It seems likely, however, that at some point the universe will reach peak complexity, and after that point it will begin to decay, and emergent complexities will begin to disappear, one by one.

Earth-Moon-System

The Terrestrial Eocivilization Hypothesis and Darwin’s Thesis

The above is closely related to what I have previously called the Terrestrial Eocivilization Hypothesis, which I characterized as follows:

“I will call the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis the position that identifies early civilization, i.e., eocivilization, with terrestrial civilization. In other words, our terrestrial civilization is the earliest civilization to emerge in the cosmos. Thus the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis is the civilizational parallel to the rare earth hypothesis, which maintains, contrary to the Copernican principle, that life on earth is rare. I could call it the ‘rare civilization hypothesis’ but I prefer ‘terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis’.”

This might, more simply, be called the “priority thesis,” and is to be distinguished from the “uniqueness thesis,” i.e., that there is one and only one civilization in the universe, and that one is terrestrial civilization. Thinking over this again in retrospect, I realize that priority, uniqueness, and biocentricity can be distinguished. A civilization might be unique in virtue of being first (i.e., having priority), or by being the only civilization, or by being the last of all civilizations. Thus priority is only one form of uniqueness among others. And priority and uniqueness can both be distinguished from biocentricity: according the biocentric theses above, biocentric civilization has priority (at least during the Stelliferous Era) but it not necessarily unique in the universe, nor unique to Earth. Terrestrial civilization is a biocentric civilization, and it may also have priority and it may be unique.

The biocentric theses are also related to what I have called Darwin’s Thesis on the Origins of Civilization, according to which civilization emerges from non-civilization, much as naturalistic accounts of life hold that life emerges from non-life (sometimes called abiogenesis). Whereas the priority thesis (i.e., the terrestrial eocivilization hypothesis, that the earliest civilization is terrestrial civilization) is specific to Earth, Darwin’s thesis, like the biocentric theses above, can be applied universally without reference to the historical accidents of civilization on Earth (including its emergence, and whether this emergence was earlier than or later than any other emergence of civilization).

From a scientific standpoint, then, it is more important to determine the exact logical relationships between the biocentric theses and Darwin’s thesis, as the details of what happened on Earth belong to the accidents of cosmological history. As I said in my post on Darwin’s thesis, these ideas about civilization are rudimentary in the extreme, but since a science of civilization does not yet exist, we must begin with these simplest of concepts if we are ever to think clearly about civilization.

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Mere Humanity

22 May 2016

Sunday


From 'How the cheetah got its SPEED: Genes mutated to boost muscle strength making the big cat the fastest mammal on land' by Sarah Griffiths

From ‘How the cheetah got its speed: Genes mutated to boost muscle strength making the big cat the fastest mammal on land’ by Sarah Griffiths

Some time ago in Humanity as One I considered the unity of the human species, and, perhaps as significantly, how we discovered that unity. Beyond the woolly thinking and feel-good platitudes that tend to swamp any discussion of human unity, we know now from the genetic evidence contained within each and every human being that humanity constitutes a single species. But while it has become a stubborn problem in the philosophy of biology of how exactly to define species, the real message of the Darwinian conception of species is that of species anti-realism (for lack of a better term). Nature is continuous, and dividing up the natural world into biological taxa — species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom — is a convenience of human knowledge but ought not to be conceived as a Platonic form in biology, i.e., a template imposed upon nature, and not nature itself. So it is with the human species: we are a convenience of taxonomy, not a natural kind.

Given species anti-realism, it should surprise no one that all species are not alike; it may be a mistake to seek a single definition for what constitutes a species, though it is a habit of the Platonic frame of mind to settle on an essentialist definition. In biology specifically, for example, there is a long-standing tension between taxonomies based on some structural criterion or criteria (as in the Linnaean system) and taxonomies based on descent (evolutionary biology since Darwin). Marc Ereshefsky in his book The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy advocates completely abandoning the Linnaean taxonomy and offers as an alternative “species pluralism,” asking whether, “Given the theoretical and pragmatic problems facing the Linnaean system, should biologists continue using that system?” With our contemporary naturalistic conception of human beings as one biological species among others, any change in our conception of species becomes a change in our conception of ourselves as a biological species. Might we define the human species in several different but equally valid ways?

In saying that humanity constitutes a single species we could express this comparatively in relation to other species. Because all species are not alike, a given species might, for example, represent more or less genetic diversity. (If we defined species by their genetic diversity, we would have a rather different taxonomy than that which we currently employ.) Geneticists discuss diversity in terms of nucleotide distance and heterozygosity; I will consider the latter as a measure for human genetic diversity. For example, human genetic diversity is lower than C. brenneri, a “bacteria-eating, 1-millimeter-long worm” (cf. The most genetically diverse animal; C. brenneri has been called “hyperdiverse” with a heterozygosity of around 40%, cf. Molecular hyperdiversity defines populations of the nematode Caenorhabditis brenneri), and higher than the San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals and Genomic Flatlining in the Endangered Island Fox). As I have sometimes cited the cheetah as a mammal population with very low genetic diversity (cf. Multiregional Cognitive Modernity), it is interesting to read that, the San Nicolas island fox, “has nearly an order of magnitude less genetic variation than any other low-diversity species, including the severely endangered African cheetah, Mountain gorilla, and Tasmanian devil.” (cf. Foxes on one of California’s Channel Islands have least genetic variation of all wild animals).

The San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California has perhaps the lowest genetic diversity of any mammal.

The San Nicolas population of island foxes off the coast of California has perhaps the lowest genetic diversity of any mammal.

Now, I will admit that the first comparison with a little-known worm is not very enlightening, as we human beings, being part of the explosive adaptive radiation of mammals after the extinction of the dinosaurs, better understand comparisons with other mammals (cf. A Sentience-Rich Biosphere), and so a better comparison would be the mammal with the greatest genetic diversity. For a non-specialist like myself it is difficult to extract the relevant numbers from the context of scientific papers, but there seem to be mammal populations with significantly higher genetic diversity than human beings, just as there are mammal populations with significantly lower genetic diversity than human beings (on human genetic diversity generally cf. Human heterozygosity: A new estimate). The striped-mouse, Rhabdomys pumilio, has a heterozygosity (in some populations) of 7.3 %, significantly higher than the mammalian mean (there is an established mean heterozygosity for mammals of about 3.6 %, or H = 0.036; cf. Genetic variation in Rhabdomys pumilio (Sparrman 1784) — an allozyme study). The house mouse Mus musculus has populations with a genetic diversity of 8.9 % (H = 0.089). The extremely endangered Rhinoceros unicornis has a heterozygosity of nearly 10%, which may be the highest of any vertebrate (cf. Molecular Markers, Natural History and Evolution by J. C. Avise, p. 366).

indian-rhino

It would be an oversimplification to rely exclusively on heterozygosity as a measure of genetic diversity, but at least it is a measure, and having a quantifiable measure gives us a different way to think about the human species, and a way to think about our species in relation to other species. The intellectual superstructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, which our industrial-technological civilization has inherited but not yet overcome, gave us the scala naturae, also known as the great chain of being (cf. my post Parsimony and Emergent Complexity). This conception also placed human beings in a context, and near the middle: higher than the animals, but lower than the angels. Genetic diversity places human beings in a naturalistic context that can (or, at least, could, with the proper motivation) be studied scientifically.

The scala naturae, or Great Chain of Being, placed humanity higher than animals but lower than angels.

The scala naturae, or Great Chain of Being, placed humanity higher than animals but lower than angels.

Are human beings being studied scientifically today? Yes and no. If you search Google for “highest genetic diversity” and “lowest genetic diversity” the top search results are all related to the perennially troubling question of human races (which I discussed in Against Natural History, Right and Left). On this point contemporary thought is so compromised that objective scientific research is impossible. This is unfortunate. More than 150 years after Darwin, the biology of human beings is still controversial. This ought to make any rational person wince.

Sigmund Freud wrote, “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor.”

Sigmund Freud wrote, “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor.”

What Freud once said of religion — “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanour” — now appears to be true of humanity, which suggests that, despite Comte’s failed attempt to explicitly formulate a religion of humanity, an implicit religion of humanity has grown up almost unnoticed around the idea. This quasi-religious conception of humanity — which Francis Fukuyama expressed by saying, “we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct” (cf. Human Exceptionalism) — militates against any scientific self-understanding by humanity. This suggests an interesting possibility for defining a scientific civilization: a scientific civilization is a civilization in which the intelligent agent responsible for the civilization reflexively applies scientific understanding to itself. Scientific medicine studies human beings scientifically in order to keep them healthy and alive, but, with a few exceptions, human beings are not yet understood in a fully scientific context.

Francis Fukuyama said that we have drawn a red line around human beings and called ourselves sacrosanct. While this is accurately descriptive of anthropocentric morality, it isn't a good guide to a scientific understanding of humanity.

Francis Fukuyama said that we have drawn a red line around human beings and called ourselves sacrosanct. While this is accurately descriptive of anthropocentric morality, it isn’t a good guide to a scientific understanding of humanity.

The scientific revolution set the stage for the possibility of a scientific civilization and for studying human beings in a fully scientific context. Neither of these possibilities have yet come to full fruition, and science itself has continued to develop and evolve, so that any scientific civilization or any conception of humanity based on contemporaneous science would have continually developed in parallel with the development of science. It is interesting to note that the scientific revolution begins about the same time as the Columbian Exchange, which latter essentially unified the human species again after our global diaspora (this was the theme of my earlier Humanity as One), in which populations had become separated and did not know themselves to be one species. The sense of humanity as one that emerges from the global unification of the Columbian Exchange and the sense of humanity as one that emerges from science both give us a planetary conception of humanity that might well be called the overview effect as applied specifically to humanity. I would call this “The Human Overview,” except that I have already used this to indicate the comprehensive impression we derive from meeting with and speaking to another.

I would argue now that we are capable of transcending even this planetary conception of humanity because of the recent extrapolation of biology as astrobiology. Science from the scientific revolution to the middle of the twentieth century was the science of a species exclusively subject to planetary endemism, and even though we overcame geocentrism in a narrow sense, our conceptions of the world and of ourselves often remained subject to geocentrism in an extended sense; the intellectual equivalent of geocentrism is the projection of the assumptions of planetary endemism onto our categories of thought. With the first glimpse of the Earth from space (i.e., the overview effect) and a growing awareness of the cosmological context of our planetary system, we began to transcend this intellectual equivalent of geocentrism. One of the consequences of this has been astrobiology, which places biology in a cosmological context, and, in so far as we understand humanity scientifically, places humanity also in a cosmological context.

Astrobiology would be impossible without both contemporary cosmology and biology; cosmology gives the scope of the conception, and biology the depth. With our increasing knowledge of cosmology and growing sophistication in biology, we have the intellectual resources now to formulate the human condition in a cosmological context and hence to understand ourselves scientifically — if only we have the strength of mind to do so. While such a conception of humanity would be “mere humanity” without the overlay of theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used in the past to develop a more comprehensive conception of humanity — what I elsewhere called, “the hopeless tangle of rationalization and cognitive bias that we have painstakingly erected around the idea of humanity” — this “mere humanity” is far more noble and edifying in its simplicity than past attempts to guild the lily.

As a species we have a long and painful history of perverting the ideals we have chosen for ourselves and making the human condition much worse than it was before any such ideals were conceived. As Montaigne noted, men, in seeking to become angels, transformed themselves into beasts (cf. Transcendental Humors). Among these brutal ideals I would count all the theological, soteriological, eschatological and teleological concepts that have been used to flesh out the concept of humanity, while the “darkling aspiration” (“dunklen Drange”) of a Faust has proved not to be our undoing, but rather to be what is best in humanity. In the past, our aspiration to embody perverted ideals in our own lives resulted in raising up as false idols fragmented and partial conceptions of humanity; individuals sought to become some particular kind of humanity (rather than “Mere Humanity”), and accounted this striving as a form of virtue, when it is, in fact, the spirit of ethnic cleansing. The planetary conception of humanity, and indeed the astrobiological conception of humanity, gives the lie to all of this. Soon it will be vain to aspire to be anything other than merely human, and soon after that it will be vain to aspire to be human (i.e., exclusively human). But the way to this understanding is through science and a rigorously scientific conception of humanity.

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An illustration from Andreas Vesalius' De humanis corporis fabrica, a classic of mere humanity.

An illustration from Andreas Vesalius’ De humanis corporis fabrica, a classic of mere humanity.

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There are a lot of Earth-like planets out there, and they vary from Earth according to physical gradients.

There are a lot of Earth-like planets out there, and they vary from Earth according to physical gradients.

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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Planetary Endemism

● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Introduction (forthcoming)

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part I

Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part II

● Civilizations of Planetary Endemism: Part III

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Evolutionary Psychology in an Astrobiological Context

Recently I was reading about evolutionary biology and it struck me how it might be possible to place evolutionary psychology in an astrobiological context and thereby formulate a much more comprehensive conception of astrobiology that goes beyond biology narrowly conceived (as well as a much more comprehensive conception of evolutionary psychology). Evolutionary biology itself has gone beyond the strictly biological in the form of evolutionary psychology, which applies the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology to elucidate human nature, human behavior, and human thought. Evolutionary biology has also gone beyond the terrestrial in the form of astrobiology, which applies the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology to elucidate life on Earth in a cosmological context. To join together these extrapolations of biology in an even larger synthesis would provide a impressive point of view.

I cannot mention evolutionary psychology without pausing to acknowledge the controversy of this discipline, and evolutionary biology today has the (nearly) unique status of being disparaged by both the political left and the political right, but my readers will already have guessed where I am likely to stand on this controversy, especially if they have read my Against Natural History, Right and Left. That the tender sensibilities of the politically motivated are offended by the harsh insights of evolutionary psychology ought to be counted in its favor. Here I am reminded of something Foucault said:

“I think I have in fact been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard, one after another and sometimes simultaneously: as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal and so on. An American professor complained that a crypto-Marxist like me was invited in the USA, and I was denounced by the press in Eastern European countries for being an accomplice of the dissidents. None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean.”

Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” in Essential Works of Foucault, edited by Paul Rabinow, Vol. 1, “Ethics,” The New Press, 1998.

Being politically denounced in this way from all possible points of view is an admission that the existing framework of thought does not yet have a convenient pigeonhole in which a person or an idea can be placed and then forgotten.

Evolutionary psychology in the context of astrobiology becomes something even more difficult to place than it is at present, although it seems to me like the logical extrapolation of astrobiology placing biology in a cosmological context. I’m not the only one who has been thinking in these terms. About the same time that I started thinking about evolutionary psychology and astrobiology together, I happened across the work of Pauli Laine, who characterizes himself as a cognitive astrobiologist. Laine spoke at the 2013 and 2014 100YSS conferences (I spoke at the 2011 and 2012 100YSS conferences, so we didn’t cross paths).

The psychology of an organism that attains to consciousness will be constrained by the evolutionary history of that organism long before it made the breakthrough the consciousness. (However, it does not follow that the conscious mind is wholly determined by biological processes; this is a distinct thesis and must be separately defended.) The biology of the organism and its species is, in turn, constrained by the biosphere in which that organism evolved. The biosphere is, in turn, constrained by the planet upon which the biosphere emerged; the parameters of the planet are constrained by the protoplanetary disk from which it and its star formed, this protoplanetary disk is in turn constrained by the galactic ecology of its local galaxy, and the galaxy is constrained by the parameters of the universe. We need not assert determinism at any level in this sequence (i.e., we need not assert that any one level of emergent complexity is wholly and exhaustively determined by the preceding level of emergent complexity) in order to acknowledge the role of an earlier state of the universe in constraining a later state of the universe.

Following the above nesting of local constraints within global constraints, the consciousness and psychology of the individual is ultimately constrained by the parameters of the universe. However, these global constraints are relatively weak in comparison to the local constraints, such as the evolutionary history of the species to which the individual organism belongs.

The next step would be to begin the above nested sequence of transitive constraints with civilization, such that civilization is constrained by the minds that produce it, the minds that produce civilization are constrained by the evolutionary history of that organism long before it made the breakthrough the consciousness, and so on. This doesn’t work so neatly, as we can intuitively see that, while civilization is a product of mind, mind is in turn influenced by the civilization it creates, so that mind and civilization are coevolutionary. This is true of the other instances of transitive constraints mentioned. For example, evolutionary biology is constrained by the biosphere, but the biosphere is in its turn influenced by the organisms that emerge within it. This added complexity does not falsify the point I am trying to make, it just means that we have to take more factors into account. It also means that mind may ultimately play a role in the universe that ultimately constrains it, and if civilization expands throughout the cosmos it is easy to see how this could happen.

Elsewhere I have suggested that astrocivilization is civilization understood in a cosmological context, as astrobiology is biology understood in a cosmological context. I have cited the NASA definition of astrobiology as, “…the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe,” which invites the parallel formulation of astrocivilization as the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of civilization in the universe. Astrocivilization is the extended conception of civilization that follows from transcending our native geocentrism and formulating a concept of civilization free from anthropocentrism and terrestrial bias (and one way to do this is to follow the Husserlian methodology of thought experiments).

Ultimately, our civilization is constructed gradually and piecemeal from countless individual decisions made by countless individuals, each following the promptings of a mind shaped by a long evolutionary history. This evolutionary history may be pushed back in time to the origins of the universe, and when science is capable of taking us beyond this point, the same evolutionary history will be pushed back even further in time to the antecedents of the observable universe. Somewhat more narrowly, given what I call the Principle of Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, the nature of astrocivilization follows from the nature of evolutionary psychology in a cosmological context.

I could have titled this post, “From Astrophysics to Astrocivilization” rather than “From Astrobiology to Astrocivilization,” because we can employ an even more comprehensive framework than that of astrobiology, according to which astrobiology is derived from astrophysics, and particular examples of evolution, ecology, and selection are local and limited instances of what on the largest scale is galactic ecology. But we still have much work to do in placing evolutionary psychology in an astrobiological context. We can think of this synthesis of evolutionary psychology and astrobiology (or, employing Laine’s term, cognitive astrobiology) as a higher form of naturalism, where “nature” is not our planet alone, but the whole of the cosmos. Naturalism in this sense is something like cosmologism. This would then answer the question, “What comes after naturalism?” That is to say, once contemporary philosophy has exhausted naturalism, what comes next? What comes next is the universe entire, and, after that, the universe beyond the scope of contemporary science.

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biogeography2

This Island Earth

Some time ago (on Twitter) I observed that astrobiology is island biogeography writ large. I return to this idea regularly, but have not yet adequately fleshed it out. I touched on this again in From an Astrobiological Point of View, but it would take considerable exposition to do justice to the idea. This post is an unsatisfactory response to my return to an idea that deserves to be studied in his own right and at some length.

Chart of the Galápagos Islands

Chart of the Galápagos Islands

Island biogeography has its origins in the origins of Darwin’s Origin of Species. As we all know, Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands during the voyage of the Beagle that Darwin recounted in The Voyage of the Beagle. Decades of thought and gestation followed, but it was in part the peculiar mix of species in the Galápagos that was crucial for Darwin’s breakthrough to the idea of natural selection. I have myself visited the Galápagos Islands (I wrote about this in Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!) and it is a spectacular lesson in natural history that I cannot recommend highly enough.

theory of island biogeography

Although island biogeography begins with Darwin, it was brought to explicit formulation and theoretical maturity by E. O. Wilson and Robert H. MacArthur in The Theory of Island Biogeography. There the authors say in their opening remarks:

“By studying clusters of islands, biologists view a simpler microcosm of the seemingly infinite complexity of continental and oceanic biogeography. Islands offer an additional advantage in being more numerous than continents and oceans. By their very multiplicity, and variation in shape, size, degree of isolation, and ecology, islands provide the necessary replications in natural ‘experiments’ by which evolutionary hypotheses can be tested.”

Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson, The Theory of Island Biogeography, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, Chap. 1, p. 3

Much of this remains valid when translated, mutatis mutandis, into astrobiology. The key, however, is how one goes about arriving at the mutatis mutandis. How can all other things remain equal when we are translating from terrestrial ecosystems in miniature, thus a bit easier to understand than the whole of the terrestrial biosphere, or some major division such as a biome, into worlds entire isolated in the blackness of interplanetary and interstellar space? The analogy is not perfect, but it is suggestive of parallel avenues of approach.

How do you quantify the life of an entire world? Higher biological taxa. This graph shows families rather than species.

How do you quantify the life of an entire world? Higher biological taxa. This graph shows families rather than species.

Scaling up biogeography

While the flora and fauna of islands are sufficiently restricted in scope to make it possible to do a detailed count not only of species present (already in The Voyage of the Beagle we see Darwin noting the number of genera and species present on various islands), but sometimes also of individuals. Obviously we are not going to be able to count species, much less individuals, for entire worlds. We must draw back, look at the big picture, and employ the kind of metrics we see in studies of mass extinctions. In detailing the loss of biodiversity of mass extinctions it is not merely species or even genera that go extinct; sometimes entire families, orders, and classes go extinct. These we can count; in fact, we could reasonably expect to count higher taxa for entire worlds.

taxnomic rank

The reformulation of island biogeographical ideas for astrobiology will be the labor of the production of a new science. The scaling up of our scope to higher biological taxa is only one among many scaling changes in our thought we must pursue in order to develop concepts adequate to the fate of life in the context of galactic ecology.

galactic ecology

Flight and its Technological Equivalents

Geologically young islands — as with the well-known example of the Galápagos Islands, mentioned above — are primarily populated by birds and marine animals. Birds bring with them a variety of plant life; moreover, many plants can float, and are brought to islands by ocean currents. Least common to arrive and to survive are those terrestrial species that find themselves on islands due to sweepstakes dispersal routes, i.e., somewhat unusual circumstances in which a breeding pair of terrestrial animals are able to ride a floating log or mass of vegetation to an otherwise isolated island and can there reproduce, like the marine iguanas on the Galápagos, who have learned to feed by diving into the ocean and forage on inter- and subtidal algae. That is to say, the least common colonists are life forms that cannot swim or fly; being able to traverse planetary distances is a limiting factor in the distribution of a life form.

Darwin Greenhouse

Darwin conducted a simple yet ingenious ecological experiment in island biogeography that he recounted in The Origin of Species:

“I have before mentioned that earth occasionally, though rarely, adheres in some quantity to the feet and beaks of birds. Wading birds, which frequent the muddy edges of ponds, if suddenly flushed, would be the most likely to have muddy feet. Birds of this order I can show are the greatest wanderers, and are occasionally found on the most remote and barren islands in the open ocean; they would not be likely to alight on the surface of the sea, so that the dirt would not be washed off their feet; when making land, they would be sure to fly to their natural fresh-water haunts. I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds: I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case: I took in February three table-spoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond; this mud when dry weighed only 6¾ ounces; I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to vast distances, and if consequently the range of these plants was not very great. The same agency may have come into play with the eggs of some of the smaller fresh-water animals.”

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, London: John Murray, 1st edition, 1859, GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION. CHAP. XII., pp. 386-387

Such is the power of flight to widely disperse species over the surface of Earth. Flight has a value beyond the differential survival and reproduction advantage that it confers upon those species so endowed; it also plays a co-evolutionary role at the largest scale of planetary ecology. That flight should develop within a biosphere is perhaps not inevitable, but we could say instead that a biosphere in which flight emerges is likely to achieve much higher levels of biodiversity, and hence prove a more robust ecosystem. A robust ecosystem, in turn, is more likely to survive existential threats (such as the mass extinctions that have repeatedly punctuated the evolution of life on Earth), so that planetary biospheres of a given longevity are more likely to have flight than not.

convergent flight

Natural selection found several different solutions to the problem of flight. Some small plant seeds, and some very small animals (e.g., spiders), are light enough to be carried by the wind. Some animals fly by gliding (flying squirrels), and some animals employ wings for flight. Wings have emerged separately among insects, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals. Flying fish might also be said to have wings. Given a biosphere not disrupted by the anthropocene, flying fish might eventually transition to a fully flying way of life; this may yet happen in the distant future.

Flight?

Flight?

The problem of flight at the level that concerns astrobiology is potentially as diverse as the solutions to the problem of flight in a planetary biosphere. We are only just beginning to understand the complexity of the universe in which we live, and we are continually discovering capacities of nature and of life that previously would have strained our credulity. Just last week on the second episode of The Unseen Podcast, host Paul Carr noted that, with all the exchange of material between the inner planets of the solar system, we would not be surprised to find that all this life comes to the same root, while we probably would be surprised, if found like the oceans of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, if it came from the same root. That far out in the solar system, we would expect a second genesis if there is any life at all.

If there is life in the subsurface ocean of Europa, we expect that life to be the result of a second genesis.

If there is life in the subsurface ocean of Europa, we expect that life to be the result of a second genesis.

That perspective on the likelihood the relations of life within the confines of a single solar system may change as we learn more about astrobiology. But so far this discussion is primarily a matter of naturally occurring dispersal vectors for species. We must consider astrobiology both before and after technologically-driven dispersal vectors, as well as in regard to terrestrial and to extraterrestrial dispersal vectors. Just as technological dispersal vectors have began to play a major role in our planetary biosphere, especially in relation to the distribution and introduction of invasive species, we would expect a mixture of both natural and technical dispersal vectors in astrobiology.

Soyuz_TMA-19_spacecraft_departs_the_ISS

Spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography.

Given the continuity of natural history and civilization, that spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography follows naturally in the strict sense of “naturally.” In other words, there is a continuity from flight as the result of biology and flight as the result of technology; there is idea diffusion (or idea flow) from nature to civilization: we observe the existence proof of powered, heavier-than-air flight in nature, and we seek to reverse engineer this development and to reproduce it with technology. Thus, in a sense, technology is the pursuit of biology by other means. Thus spaceflight, as the technological equivalent of biological flight, will play a co-evolutionary role at the largest scale of galactic ecology.

flight 2

It may be worth noting in this context that the cluster of developments dependent upon human activity — intelligence, technology, language, and civilization among them — could be said to represent a solution to the problem of survival, but it is a “solution” that we find no where else in nature except in ourselves. Now, in referring to “nature” in the previous sentence I here mean “in the terrestrial biosphere.” This is significant, because a viable solution to the problem of survival (as we can see from the example of flight, or I might also use the example of vision) tends to be repeatedly emergent in nature, so that we find multiple instances of homology and convergent evolution. We do not find this in regard to the human solution to the problem of survival.

If this is a solution to the problem of survival as posed by the terrestrial environment, why did no other species exploit this strategy?

If this is a solution to the problem of survival as posed by the terrestrial environment, why did no other species exploit this strategy?

On a larger scale, a scale at which “nature” does not mean the terrestrial biosphere but rather means the whole of the universe, we may well yet see the cohort of complexities associated with human beings repeated elsewhere, though we have to scale up our perspective, just as with scaling up island biography until it coincides with astrobiology. Metrics appropriate to human activity in a terrestrial context will not be sufficient for human (or, more generally, intelligent) activity in an extraterrestrial context. Another way to understand this is that, confined to the surface of Earth, distinctions that would be significant to civilization are conflated by contingent circumstances; raised off the surface of the Earth, and given energy and resources almost without limit, previously conflated properties of civilization manifest themselves in an extraterrestrial context and eventually become obvious as spacefaring civilizations undergo rapid adaptive radiation and come to exemplify different civilizational properties.

Terrestrial civilizations from an extraterrestrial perspective appear homogenous, but this may be a function of their being subject in common to specific terrestrial selection pressures.

Terrestrial civilizations from an extraterrestrial perspective appear homogenous, but this may be a function of their being subject in common to specific terrestrial selection pressures.

But to return to the idea that technology is the pursuit of biology by other means, as I observed in my Centauri Dreams post, How We Get There Matters, existential ends are not indifferent to technological means. In the particular case of the pursuit of biological ends by technological means, this provides a context for thinking about astrobiology in an age of spacefaring civilizations.

starship classes

Many metrics have been proposed for spacefaring civilization. I mentioned some of these in my last post, Thinking about Civilization, including metrics that I have myself attempted to work out. In that post I did not mention the metric that I proposed in my Centuari Dreams post How We Get There Matters (and which I followed with SETI Under Conditions of Constraint for Spacefaring Civilization), which concerned classes of starships. This is a metric immediately relevant to the question of spaceflight understood as the development of a continuum that begins with the first wind-blown distribution of seeds and spores, and which might some day mean the greening of the galaxy.

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Third Time’s a Charm

8 February 2014

Saturday


geological eras of life

The Three Eras of Life on Earth

The Earth, it would seem, has been regularly reduced to biological penury throughout its long history, which has been punctuated by mass extinctions that have very nearly reduced biodiversity to zero. It is possible that, in the earliest history of life on Earth, when our planet was regularly bombarded by objects from space, and exposed to especially harsh conditions, life may have emerged multiple times, only to be wiped out again in short order. There would have been plenty of time for this to occur during the 550 million years prior to the emergence of the earliest life known to be continuous with our own.

The repeated denudation of the planet by mass extinctions constituted a kind of ecological succession on a grand scale. Each time life had to recover anew, and, in recovering, the surviving species (the “weeds” that were the most robust and which went on to colonize the denuded landscape and seascape) underwent dramatic periods of adaptive radiation until, in the global climax ecosystems prior to a mass extinction event, almost every niche for life has been filled — possibly several times over, leading to contested niches where multiple species compete for the same limited resources.

The history of life is such a reliable indicator of geological time that there is an entire discipline — biostratigraphy — given over to the dating of rocks by the fossils they contain. Once life becomes sufficiently complex to leave a record of itself in the rocks of our planet, the development of life is a sure guide to the age of the rocks that contain traces of this past life. Contemporary scientific geology largely got its start through biostratigraphy in the work of William Smith (called “strata Smith” by his contemporaries), whom I have previously mentioned in The Transplanetary Perspective.

Three of the major divisions of geological time are named for the eras of life that they comprise: Paleozoic (old life), Mesozoic (middle life), and Cenozoic (common, or recent, life). These divisions of geological time give a “big picture” view of the history of life on Earth. The mass extinction events at the end of the Permian and at the K-T boundary were so catastrophic that the Earth in the case of the end Permian extinction came perilously close to being sterilized, and while the K-T event (now known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene or K–Pg extinction event) was not as disastrous, it ended the dominion of the dinosaurs over most ecological niches and thereby gave mammals the opportunity to experience an explosive adaptive radiation.

cosmos 06

Million Year Old Civilizations

We know that intelligent life on Earth arose in the late Cenozoic era, but how clement were these earlier eras of life on Earth to intelligent life? If intelligent life had arisen in the Paleozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 250 million years old. If, again, intelligent life had arisen in the Mesozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 65 million years old. However, both of these counterfactual civilizations that did not happen would have almost certainly have been destroyed by the catastrophic mass extinctions that separated these eras of terrestrial life (unless they had taken adequate measures to mitigate existential risk, which would seem to be a necessary condition for any truly long-lived civilization).

The idea of a civilization a million or more years old was a theme discussed by Carl Sagan on several occasions. Here is an explicit formulation of the million-year-old civilization theme from Chapter XII, “Encyclopedia Galacitca,” from Sagan’s book Cosmos:

“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight? People have a finite lifespan for a reason. Enormous progress in the biological and medical sciences might uncover that reason and lead to suitable remedies. Could it be that we are so interested in spaceflight because it is a way of perpetuating ourselves beyond our own lifetimes? Might a civilization composed of essentially immortal beings consider interstellar exploration fundamentally childish?”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”

Human civilization could be considered as being more than ten thousand years old if we date the advent of civilization to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is an atypical way to think about civilization, but I have seen it in a few sources (Jacob Bronowski, I think, takes this view, more or less), and it is how I myself think about civilization. A civilization ten thousand years old or more is nothing to dismiss; persisting for ten thousand years is a non-trivial accomplishment. Yet the history of terrestrial civilization may be compared to the history of terrestrial life: there is a long period that is nearly stagnant, with painfully slow innovations, and then an event occurs — the Cambrian explosion for life, the industrial revolution for civilization — and what it means to be “alive” or “civilized” is radically altered.

Dating to the Neolithic Agricultural revolution is consistent with my recent suggestion in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization that civilization could be minimally defined as a coevolutionary cohort of species. However, our industrial-technological civilization is barely more than two hundred years old. To consider the geologically insignificant period of time of one hundred years is to contemplate a period of time half again as long as the entire history of industrial-technological civilization. The kind of technological gains that industrial-technological civilization could experience over a period of a hundred years can be quite remarkable, as our experience of the past hundred years suggests.

This year, 2014, we experience the one hundred year anniversary of global industrialized warfare. Not long after, we will experience the hundred year anniversaries of digital computers, jet propulsion, rocketry, and nuclear technology. Some of these technologies have improved by orders of magnitude. Some have improved very little. If the coming century brings commensurate technological innovations (not to mention innovations in science that would drive these technological innovations), even if not all these developments experience exponential development, and many languish in a state of stagnation, our world and our understanding of the world will nevertheless be repeatedly revolutionized.

Given what we know about the rapidity of technological change — bequeathed to our industrial-technological civilization as a consequence of the STEM cycle — we ought to conclude that we can know almost nothing about what a million year civilization would be like, except in so far as we might be able to imagine only the most stagnant aspects of such a civilization. It would be beyond our ability to understand advanced technologies ten thousand years hence, just as our ancestors, only beginning to lay the foundations of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization ten thousand years ago, could have understood our advanced technologies today. Understanding across these orders of developmental magnitude lie beyond the human zone of proximal development.

Octopus evolution

Counterfactual Civilizations

I have written previously that there is an earliest bound in the history of our universe for life, for intelligent life, and for civilization. It would not be possible to produce an industrial-technological civilization as we know it (i.e., a peer civilization) without heavier metallic elements, so that the emergence of industrial-technological civilization must minimally wait for the formation of Population I stars and their planetary systems. That being said, many population I stars have been around for billions of years, and there have consequently been billions of years for industrial-technological civilizations to emerge and to attain great age.

Are there other constraints upon the emergence of life, intelligence, and civilization that move the boundary for the earliest possible emergence of these phenomena nearer to the present? Is there any reason to suppose, from our knowledge of the natural history of Earth and the complexity of the human brain, that intelligent life and civilization could not have arisen in earlier eras of life — Paleozoic intelligent life or Mesozoic intelligent life, which would, in turn, according to Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, give rise to Paleozoic civilization or Mesozoic civilization? Or, if not here on Earth, why not some other planet orbiting a population I star where life begins 550 million years after the formation of the planet?

Octopi, cuttlefish, and other cephalopods with large brains and highly sophisticated nervous systems — it takes a lot of raw neural processing power to do what some cephalopods do with their skin color — would seem to be ideal candidates for early terrestrial intelligent life. Octopi date back to the Devonian Period, more than 360 million years ago, during the Paleolithic Era, so that ancestors of this life form survived both the End Permian extinction and the K-T extinction (cf. Fossil Octopuses). Why didn’t cephalopods establish a counterfactual civilization during the Permian? There was certainly time enough to do so before the End Permian extinction.

Is a backbone, or something that can serve a similar function like an exoskeleton, a necessary condition for intelligence to issue in the production of civilization? Multicellular life forms without a backbone, or confined to an aquatic environment, might well develop intelligence, but would have a difficult time building a technological civilization — difficult, but not impossible. This is a question I considered previously in The Place of Bilaterial Symmetry in the History of Life and Counterfactuals Implicit in Naturalism.

If we should find life in the oceans below the icy surface of Europa, or any of the other moons in our solar system internally heated by gravitational forces, it would consist of life forms peculiarly constrained by their environment, i.e., possibly more constrained than terrestrial conditions, and therefore more likely to favor extremophiles. Oceanic lifeforms beneath a crust of ice many kilometers thick would not only have the technological disadvantage faced by any intelligent aquatic species, but would face the additional disadvantage of being cut off from the stars. Unable to physically see their place in the universe, such lifeforms might have an even more difficult time that we had in coming to understand the world. The mythology of such a life form would have to be very different from the mythologies created by early human societies, in which the stars typically played a prominent role. Any civilization that might be conjoined with such a mythology might constitute an extremophile civilization.

vitruvian_man

Inside the Charmed Circle

Many of the questions that I have posed above are variations on ancient themes of anthropocentrism, and from within the charmed circle of anthropocentrism it is difficult for us to see outside that circle. Our minds are quite literally defined by that circle, being the product of human biology, and our imagination is largely circumscribed by the limitations of our minds. But our minds are also capable, with effort, of passing beyond the charmed circle of anthropocentrism, identifying anthropic bias as such and transcending it.

For us, the third time life got a chance on Earth was the charm. Paleozoic life came and (largely) went without producing intelligence or civilization, as did Mesozoic life. It was not until Cenozoic life that intelligence and civilization emerged. But was this the result of mere contingency, or a function of some operative constraint — possibly even a constraint no one has even noticed because of its pervasive presence — that prevented intelligence and civilization from arising in earlier geological eras?

While there might be reason to believe that other forms of life will have something like a DNA structure, or that something like the transition from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells will have taken place, but there is no particular reason to believe that the large scale structure of life on other worlds would have the terrestrial tripartite structure, since this big picture view of life on Earth was a result of particular mass extinction events that seem too contingent to characterize any possible emergence of life. However, there is reason to believe that there will be some mass extinction events afflicting life on other worlds, and at least some of these mass extinction events will result from large scale cosmological events. If solar systems form elsewhere in a process like the formation of our solar system, life elsewhere would also be exposed to asteroid impacts, comets, solar flares, and the like. This is one of the lessons of astrobiology.

That there will be constraints and contingencies that bear upon life we can be certain; but we cannot (yet) know exactly what these constraints and contingencies will be. This is a non-constructive observation: invoking the existence of constraints and contingencies without saying what they will be. What would a constructive approach to life’s constraints and contingencies look like? Is it necessary to adopt a non-constructive perspective where our knowledge is so lacking? As knowledge of the conditions of astrobiology and astrocivilization grows, may we yet adopt a constructive conception of them?

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