Sunday


The “West Asian Cluster” is a term that I use to identify the several early civilizations that emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia (cf. my remarks on the west Asian cluster in The Seriation of Western Civilization and The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State). Whereas civlization emerged independently in geographically isolated regions scattered across the planet, in the case of the west Asian cluster, these civilizations seem to have arisen in concert and to have been in contact with each other throughout their development.

A nomadic or pastoral people, accustomed to walking, would readily have traveled between the regions of the west Asian cluster. Moreover, we know that long-distance trade routes that preceded civilization ran through the area. Distinctive forms of obsidian were traded over long distance, and examples can be traced back to their source. These trade routes likely remained in place as civilization developed in the region, probably expanding as more manufactured goods became available for trade, and these trade routes could have served as vectors for idea diffusion throughout the region.

Thus I assume that continuous idea diffusion within the region meant that whenever a civilized innovation emerged in one location within the cluster, that it was picked up relatively rapidly by other locations in the cluster. In this way, 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.

As these civilizations rose in concert, it seems that they also fell in concert, in an event that is sometimes called the Late Bronze Age (LBA) collapse. Previously in Epistemic Collapse I mentioned Eric H. Cline’s book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which deals with this period of history. Near the end of the book Cline wrote:

“…for more than three hundred years during the Late Bronze Age — from about the time of Hatshepsut’s reign beginning about 1500 BC until the time that everything collapsed after 1200 BC — the Mediterranean region played host to a complex international world in which Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots, and Egyptians all interacted, creating a cosmopolitan and globalized world system such as has only rarely been seen before the current day. It may have been this very internationalism that contributed to the apocalyptic disaster that ended the Bronze Age. The cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and Greece seem to have been so intertwined and interdependent by 1177 BC that the fall of one ultimately brought down the others, as, one after another, the flourishing civilizations were destroyed by acts of man or nature, or a lethal combination of both.”

Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 171

If, as I suggested above, the development of these intertwined civilizations was reticulate, one would not be surprised that their collapse was also reticulate, distributed throughout the region, following from multiple causes and cascading into multiple consequences — a seriation of distributed collapse. If we think of this as an ecosystem of civilizations, it is easy to think of the LBA collapse as a mass extinction of civilizations. Species, like civilizations, arise in concert, embedded in coevolutionary contexts, not only evolving along with other species, but also with the inorganic environment. When a food web catastrophically collapses, it brings down many species because of their interdependence, and the same may be true of civilizations within their coevolutionary context.

What exactly is a mass extinction? Here is a discussion of definitions of mass extinctions:

“[Sepkoski] defines mass extinction as any substantial increase in the amount of extinction (that is, lineage termination) suffered by more than one geographically widespread higher taxon during a relatively short interval of geological time, resulting in at least temporary decline in their standing diversity. This is a general definition purposefully designed to be somewhat vague. An equally vague but more concise one offered here is that a mass extinction is an extinction of a significant proportion of the world’s biota in a geologically insignificant period of time. The vagueness about extinctions can be dealt with fairly satisfactorily in particular cases by giving percentages of taxa, but the vagueness about time is more difficult to deal with. A significant question about mass extinctions is how catastrophic they were, so we also require a definition of catastrophe in this context. According to Knoll (1984), it is a biospheric perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the geological record.”

A. Hallam and P. B. Wignall, Mass Extinctions and their Aftermath, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 1

The last of these definitions could be adapted to the mass extinction of civilizations: a social perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the historical record. This isn’t exactly right, as we know that it takes time for civilizations to collapse, but if we soften the “instantaneous” to “rapidly” it works, after a fashion. And the authors of this passage openly recognize the ambiguity of time in the definition.

Have there been other mass extinctions of civilizations in history? If we think of the interconnected Mediterranean Basin in Late Antiquity, the collapse of Roman power in the west would constitute a mass extinction of civilizations of the region, though if we count this as a single Hellenistic civilization stretching across Europe into North Africa and West Asia, then it is only a singular collapse. Similarly, if we think of all the civilizations subsumed under Islamic rule during the greatest reach of Islamic civilization, its collapse might also be characterized as a mass extinction of civilizations.

Could a mass extinction of civilizations happen again? We face similar definitional challenges. Are we to consider the whole of planetary civilization as one civilization, or as several civilizations merged and subsumed? A catastrophic institutional collapse of planetary civilization today might be counted either as the collapse of one worldwide civilization or as several tightly-coupled civilizations, as interdependent as the civilizations of West Asia during the Late Bronze Age.

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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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Monday


From Ulrich Latzenhofer's photostream on Flickr.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland, and the disruption of air traffic across Europe, is a lesson in the power of vulcanism. The astonishing images coming out of Iceland (such as the one I used from from Ulrich Latzenhofer’s photostream on Flickr) are matched by the dramatic stories of Icelandic farmers attempting to save their livestock.

Iceland has a long history of vulcanism, and has made the best of a dangerous situation by drawing on its proximity to molten magma for heat and electricity (from geothermal sources), but the eruption shows how quickly these sources of energy can turn into a mortal danger. Thick deposits of ash have rendered large areas of the countryside uninhabitable by livestock. The BBC reported that, “Areas south of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano have been caked in a layer of grey ash some 10cm (four inches) thick. Ponds have turned into pools of cement-like mud and geese have had trouble flying because their wings are heavy with ash, media reports say.”

The disruption caused by the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano can be a help to our imagination in coming to a concrete realization of the power of mass vulcanism. With these images of Iceland in mind, imagine either a supervolcano (“…a volcano capable of producing a super volcanic eruption, which is a volcanic eruption with ejecta greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers… thousands of times larger than most historic volcanic eruptions…”) or hundreds if not thousands of volcanoes erupting in an episode of massive vulcanism. In this way, our actual experience (aided by imagination) can be enlisted in our understanding of events that dwarf anything we will experience.

The theory of dinosaur extinction most familiar in the popular press is that of the K-T impact extinction theory, such that the impact that caused the Chicxulub crater (“…an ancient impact crater buried underneath the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico…”), and climate changes caused by this massive impact, was the primary cause of the mass extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. But this is not the only contending theory for the mass extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. There is also the K-T Deccan Traps volcanism-induced carbon cycle perturbation extinction theory, called the Volcano-Greenhouse theory by its originator, Dewey McLean.

While more people know about the K-T impact extinction theory, both theories are plausible and have impressive evidence for them. It may be that the K-T impact theory is better known for the reason that contemporary popular culture has produced several major Hollywood films about extraterrestrial impacts, and that these dramatizations have a not-inconsiderable influence upon the popular imagination. The power of nature revealed over the past week in Iceland is a good opportunity to educate our imagination more broadly, for an educated imagination opens possibilities of thought otherwise foreclosed simply for lack of the ability of conceive alternatives.

I made a somewhat similar argument in Life in the Holocene Epoch regarding the immediate intuitive impact of a photograph of Britain, turned entirely white by ice and snow, during the past difficult winter. The Eyjafjallajoekull volcano, like the photograph of a snowbound Britain, provide ample stimulation for the a priori imagination, thus, “bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity.” (according to Collingwood)

In this case, the continuity given is the continuity of natural history rather than human history, as well as the continuity of scientific theory and ordinary experience. Any way that we can close these gaps (i.e., the gaps between scientific theory of ordinary experience) we achieve a more comprehensive and complete understanding of the world. In this particular instance, in relation to theories of the K-T mass extinction event, we get not just an understanding, but an intuitive feeling, a direct experience of the power of nature and the events of natural history, that makes theorizing and understanding possible. From such a perspective we are better prepared to appreciate the different theories of mass extinction, as well as the scientific possibilities that underlie these theories.

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Iceland, source of Skaldic literature

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