Thursday, 3 February 2011

Speculative Biology

Well, here's my final post for the day, and perhaps for the month as well.

Dougal Dixon has become associated with what is referred to as speculative biology". His lavishly illustrated writings have become a source of interest for sci fi fans and scientists alike. To give you a taste, here's the Wikipedia description of the incredible plot of Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future:

"The book begins with the impact of genetic engineering. For 200 years modern humans morphed the genetics of other humans to create genetically-altered creatures. The aquamorphs and aquatics are marine humans with gills instead of lungs. One species - the vacuumorph - has been engineered for life in the vacuum of space. Its skin and eyes carry shields of skin to keep its body stable even without pressure. Civilization eventually collapses, with a few select humans escaping to colonize space. The humans that manufactured these species degrade to simple farmers and following a magnetic reversal, were driven to extinction. Other humans, the Hitek, become almost totally dependent on cybernetic technology. With Magnetic reversal imminent, the Hitek built genetically altered humans to occupy niches: Genetically-altered humans include a temperate woodland species, a prairie species, a junglespecies, and a tundra-dwelling species.

Since then the genetically-altered humans must face a new phenomenon. They can no longer be genetically tweaked in a lab, so all modifications must naturally evolve. Many new forms resulted from natural selection. Socials, colonial humans with a single reproductive parent, Fishers, otter-like fishing humans, Slothman sloth-like humans, Spiketeeth, saber-toothed predatory humans, and even parasitic humans developed through natural changes.

After five million years of uninterrupted evolution, the descendants of modern man that retreated into space returned. Then the world changed dramatically. Earth was terraformed and covered in vast alien cities. The humans and other life forms in this new Earth must breathe air with low oxygen content. Thus the alien invaders use cyborg-technology to fuse the bodies of the few human species they find useful on the planet with air tanks and respiration systems. Genetic modification also returned and giant building humans and tiny connection humans were bred to aid city construction. Genetically created horse-like men serve as mounts for the invaders. Some engineered human species even became farmed like pigs or cattle. As with all civilization, this new era of man fell apart once again.

Eventually the spacefaring humans left, the Earth was left in ruins. With barely any oxygen left in the Earth's atmosphere, all terrestrial life on the planet perished. At the bottom of the world's oceans, at the oases that were the underwater hot springs, life continue. In the abyss, was Piscanthropus profundus, a deep-sea descendant of the now-extinct Aquatic evolved. It is implied that Piscathropus profundis would eventually recolonize Earth's surface".

I recommend checking out this Flickr set to get an appreciation of the bestiary featured in Dixon's work.

And now to the foreword by Brian Aldiss:

It has become necessary to look into the future.

There must have been a time, long past, when animals much like apes looked up into the night sky and wondered about the stars: what those pinpoints of light were, and what they were for. Only a brief while after that, the apelike things acquired language; then stories began to be told, and fantasies woven about the stars overhead. That cluster resembled a hunter and, high above, the outlines of a great bear could be discerned. Such stories, told in the Pleisto¬cene dark, kept the bogeyman away.

Animals have no interest in stars. First speculations regarding the stars represented a revolution in thought. Speculations about the future, such as this book, mark another revolution.

Future speculation is of very recent origin. Yet today no man can call himself cultured who does not occasionally look beyond his own lifetime and his children’s, if only to worry about where the cancerous growth of world popula¬tion is going. Dougal Dixon’s book is an ambitious attempt to view a future as far distant from us as those ramapithecine creatures whose fragmentary remains turn up in Afri¬can fossil beds.

The ability to look into the future is a recently-acquired skill. It has, in fact, all been done by mirrors: there was no seeing into the future until we could see into the past. It is the ever-changing panorama of past time which we extrapolate into future time.

The business of comprehending bygone ages was a hard lesson to learn. Fossils, those coinages of past life, were always of interest to mankind. They are mentioned by Greek writers, for instance, and certainly Herodotus recognized them as being the remains of once-living crea¬tures, understanding that their presence in the mountains of Upper Egypt was evidence that those areas had pre¬viously been under water. Lucretius, too, in his wonderful De Rerum Natura, pours scorn on supernatural effects and speaks of the Earth as having ‘generated every living species and once brought forth from its womb the bodies of huge beasts’.

The light of reason did not always shine. Huge fossil bones later gave birth (or so we may surmise) to the legend of giants walking the Earth. The perceptions of the Greeks were forgotten. Eratosthenes, some time in the third cen¬tury вс, understood well that the Earth is round, and measured its circumference with remarkable accuracy, for the latitude of Alexandria. Aristarchus of Samos, in the same period, proposed that the Earth and other planets proceeded in orbit about the sun. These perceptions were overlaid by superstition.

Greek reasoning was based on careful observation, a quality in which the Dark Ages and Middle Ages were weak. The mental world became smaller. Not until the Renaissance in the fifteenth century did learning revive. Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, studied fossils and under¬stood their origins. He explains why leaves are found whole among rocks:

There the mud caused by the successive inundations has covered them over, and then this mud grows into one mass together with the aforesaid paste, and becomes changed into successive layers of stone which correspond with the layers of mud.

But Leonardo did not know the age of the Earth and, in any case, accretion of knowledge is as much subject to chance and the processes of time as the fossils themselves. Homo diluvii testis survived as a fantasy for a while, as Piltdown Man was to do later; they were, so to say, phantom fossils.

One of the difficulties in the way of understanding the past was that for centuries the past remained obdurately and orthodoxly small. Religion got in the viewfinder. A wall rather like the walls of Jericho was built about antiquity by Archbishop Ussher, a seventeenth-century divine, who, after a careful study of the Bible, proclaimed that the world began on 26 October, 4004 вс, round about breakfast time. Precision is attractive; Ussher’s calculations became dogma.

The ‘walls of Jericho’ begin to crumble at the beginning of the nineteenth century. What made them crumble was a tooth, retrieved from a pile of rubble in Lewes, Sussex, by a young Mrs Mantell, wife of a doctor Gideon Mantell. The Mantells took the tooth to the learned and eccentric William Buckland of Oxford, a man who ate his way through the animal kingdom and had gobbled down the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion. Buckland was a little weak on the Mantellian tooth. After some research of his own, Mantell named the erstwhile possessor of his tooth Iguanodon.

Buckland, meanwhile, discovered another tooth near Oxford, together with other remains, and named the fossil Megalosaurus.

Thus were the first two dinosaurs named. It was not until 1842 that Richard Owen defined these newly-discovered animals as a distinct group of large reptiles, and bestowed on them the label Dinosauria. A powerful new idea, a new dimension of imagination, had been born. By the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, dinosaurs had become common property, and the notion of animals larger than elephants trundling about what became English watering places had caught the popular fancy.
Meanwhile, conceptions of the age of the Earth were being pushed out at a great rate. It spelt the fall of the house of Ussher. Evolutionary theories were current in the eighteenth century, for instance in the proposals, many of them charmingly rhymed, of Erasmus Darwin. In his The Temple of Nature (1803), he depicts with considerable accuracy the pageant of life from its beginnings until the arrival of mankind.

Darwin’s couplets are often neat and memorable, as he intended they should be. The formation of strata of chalk is expressed in a striking image:

Age after age expands the peopled plain,
The tenants perish, but their cells remain.
Erasmus Darwin celebrated limestone mountains as ‘mighty monuments of past delight’, thus in some way looking ahead to Jim Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the totality of terrestrial life as a homeostatic organism.

What Erasmus Darwin lacked was proof of his theories, the tooth found by Mrs Mantell and all the other evidences of remote and continuous life over millions of years which soon followed Owen’s first christening. As geology kept pushing back the age of the rocks, it was the testimony of those rocks which supported the theory of evolution presented by Erasmus’ grandson, Charles Darwin. There had to be enough time in which the whole great drama of life could be staged. Palaeontology gradually won – by a long and painstaking accumulation of facts by numerous people, learned and not so learned.

We now know that life on the planet is no less than 2500 million years old, whereas the age of the Earth is accepted as being something more than 4500 million years.

It was my good fortune as a boy of seven to be given an imposing volume entitled The Treasury of Knowledge. There for the first time I learned of evolution and of the ages preceding ours. So enamoured was I of the story of the creation of the solar system, of the dawn of life, of the dinosaurs, and of those early men - like us, unlike us - that I gave lessons on the subject when at preparatory school, at one penny a time. Although I do not recollect ever being paid, I recall the pleasure we all had drawing brontosauruses and shaggy Neanderthal men.

That precious book is still in my possession. It was published in about 1933 (no actual date printed). Nowhere does it give the ages of the various epochs of past history. A question mark still hung over that subject in the years before carbon-dating and an understanding of the nuclear nature of the sun. In one lifetime we have progressed from that grey area to knowing (or believing we know) how the universe itself came into being - though some doubt remains about the first few seconds of that event.

Until we could look into the past, until the past was seen as a story of continuous development or change, with the mutability of species which that implied, the future remained blank. It gave no credible reflection. This we can see if we read romances of the future penned before evolutionary theory became a reality in human minds. Futures were like the present but more so.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man of 1826, for instance, is set at the end of the twenty-first century. It is a bold stroke, and some play is made with travel by air balloon and revolution in England; but the Turks are still causing trouble at the eastern end of Europe. When a plague commences to wipe out all of humanity, no attempt is made to introduce innoculation or vaccination, although that would have been a reasonable proposition in the 1820s. The novel is full of interesting reflections; but the motive power which evolution could supply is absent.

It was not until 1895 that readers could take up the first novel to be formed by evolutionary thought, as a waffle is shaped by the pattern of the waffle iron. The Time Machine was written by a pupil of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s great protagonist, H. G. Weils. In this marvellous narration, Wells sketches out aeons of future time. It is part of his design that - unlike the epochs in The Treasury of Knowledge - everything has a date. The date at which the time traveller eventually arrives is 802,701: not, in fact, a credible date for the end of the Earth by today’s standards, but one well designed to seem reasonable to the book’s first readers, who had enough other marvels to cope with. Indeed, it is difficult to realize now just how subversive the book must have seemed to many at that date, for a gloomy picture indeed is painted of the bifurcation of society into Morlock and Eloi to which Victorian society is depicted as heading. Evolution is shown as not working on behalf of mankind, as was then popularly imagined.

And, of course, our species is shown as mutable, as transitory.

As the time traveller travels through time into a distant future, he observes that ‘The whole surface of the earth seemed changed – melting and flowing under my eyes’. This is a man who has read Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. ‘I saw great and splendid architecture rising about me, more massive than any buildings of our own time, and yet, it seemed, built of glimmer and mist.’ It is not only man’s achievements, but mankind itself, which proves transitory, a thing of glimmer and mist.
Without a fresh understanding of the past, without its decipherment, The Time Machine could not have been written; or, if written, could not have been deciphered.

Following on from Wells, we have had many visions of the future. Whether mechanical, trivial, or profound, they all rest on the findings of the nineteenth century; all work as reflections of our understanding of the preceding millions of years.

As much is true of Dougal Dixon’s book. Yet it impresses me as being startlingly original, perhaps the progenitor of a new breed, future-faction. It eschews the trappings of fiction upon which Wells seized. It presents itself as a straight record of the future, the future over the next 5 million years. It is Darwin, Lyell and Wells rolled into one. They would like this book, and be horrified by it: for we have, after all, travelled a long way since their day, and supped on horrors beyond their resources. We have lived through an age (well, men felt much the same in 1000 AD, though for different reasons) when we have almost daily expected the world to be terminated.

So here is the mutability, with human flesh a thing of glimmer and mist. Man After Man is a drama of the oncotic pressure of time on tissue. Dixon does not tell us of the things his caravanserai of creatures believes and thinks; it is enough that we know what they eat. For one of the revelations brought home by evolutionary theory is that we are a part of the food chain, along with pigs, broiler fowls and the tasty locust.

Of course the prospect is melancholy as well as fascinating. This is one of the characteristics of futurology. After all, we are looking at a period long after our own insignificant individual deaths. Everything we are asked to consider here reinforces the fact that our world and all we cherish in it is gone. We are one with Tutankhamun and Archbishop Ussher. Other beings possess the field.
Consider Knut who, Dixon tells us, lives a mere 500 years from now. Knut’s seems a lonely life. He lives in a wilderness of tundra. He subsists on a diet of mosses, lichens, heathers, and coarse grasses. He has been adapted, so he finds his diet palatable and nourishing. But the question arises in our minds: do we not find a little frightening and alien this inheritor of our world — and where did all the toast and marmalade go?

We ourselves like - need - a coarse mental diet. We pass for human, but perhaps only among ourselves. Part of us is sane but, at times of crisis, and not only then, an instinctive drive takes over. We seek to set aside the human aspect by use of drink, drugs and other means of escape, as if being human was as yet too much for us. We have a hearty appetite for apocalypse, as the history of the twentieth century shows.

With this appetite goes an obsession with the future. The futures we visualize are generally dystopian. Dixon’s is science-based, but proves distinctly ahuman. Sombre, I would call it. And sombre was also a word that occurred to Thomas Hardy when he considered the change in taste of our modern age. Hardy was a pall-bearer at Darwin’s funeral, and his writings are steeped in evolutionary thought, from A Pair of Blue Eyes to The Dynasts, the great supernatural drama he wrote in the early years of this century. In The Return of the Native, he reflects on such matters.

Men have oftener suffered from the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard Egdon appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming and fair.

Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty is not approaching its last quarter.... Human souls may find themselves in harmony closer and closer with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to our race when it was young. The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind.

Hardy there shows his prophetic sense. We might go on to say that chronicles of change which impress on us the transitory nature of our lives and our civilization are also in keeping with the mood of the present. The current obsession with the future may also pass away in time; but for now – just for now – Dougal Dixon has the right idea.

1 comment:

gordsellar said...

Wow, this totally takes me back. I never had a copy of Man After Man, but I did have Dixon's After Man, and I remember thumbing through it for hours at a time, enthralled by the idea that, yeah, if humans went extinct, the world would go on without us... and evolution would mean all these critters we'd never seen would develop. Fascinating stuff, especially when I was a kid. I'll have to try dig out and save that book when I next visit my mom's place.