A Matter of Intense But Mostly Theoretical Debate

The Story So Far

When I wrote the last issue of Five Futures, I was anticipating the next issue coming out on Monday the 29th, or perhaps Tuesday the 30th. My final weekend in Idaho was looking busy, but how intense could a vendor conference really be? It was basically just going to be three days of marketing, right?

I had no idea how wrong I was.

The vendor conference was probably the most mentally and physically demanding conference I’ve ever been to. The days were long, or late, or both, and the sessions were far more informative (and not just about the vendor’s products, but also about the state of IT and security in general) and mentally demanding than I’d anticipated. Because of that, it was all I could do to keep up with a minimum of my responsibilities at work, let alone find the time to organize this newsletter.

So now I’m two weeks late.

By way of compensation, this is a double issue of Five Futures, cover ten topics rather than the customary five. A couple of these stories are a bit older, as despite having two weeks worth of material I’ve had to delve into my archive a bit to maintain the structure I committed to when I began this project. Sometimes the structure of the stories we tell is more important than the words themselves, and Five Futures is, I think, one of those stories.

The Ever More Distant Origins of Life

One of the more exciting developments of the last week has been the discovery of probable stromatolite fossils in Greenland. Stromatolites are structures accreted by various microorganisms, typically cyanobacteria, though who knows what accreted the Greenland fossils (the earliest evidence for the existence of cyanobacteria doesn’t show up until almost a billion years after these fossils). The find pushes back the earliest known evidence of life by 220 million years, to 3.7 billion years ago.

What’s most remarkable about these fossils is that they indicate that life must have already been well established on Earth during the Eoarchean, and thus must have arisen essentially as soon as the Late Heavy Bombardment ended and the Earth’s crust solidified. This is roughly in line with the estimated 3.8 billion-year-old last universal common ancestor (LUCA). It apparently didn’t take long for the “half alive” LUCA to become sufficiently complex to expand beyond the hydrothermal vents it probably emerged near and begin leaving an indelible mark on the young planet - a hundred million years at most. Probably less.

The apparent rapidity of LUCA’s advancement from deep-sea chemical process to mound-building bacteria has significant exobiologic implications (see the last story in this letter).

Lichens Get Weird(er)

Lichens are already fairly unusual… Things. They’re not “species”, at least as we generally think about “species”, as they’re composed of a fungus and one or more algae or cyanobacteria, each of which can successfully grow and reproduce outside of its “lichenized” form. The same fungi can produce wildly different lichen if combined with a different partner species. They may, in fact, represent almost entirely self-contained miniature ecosystems. And no one’s quite sure when lichen first evolved - the best range we have is somewhere between 400 million (the earliest undisputed fossils) and 2.2 billion (the earliest evidence of lichen component species) years ago.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to postulate that lichen represent a completely different approach to multicellular life than is found in more familiar organisms.

Despite the fact that the species that make up lichens can be cultured independently, attempts to combine them in a laboratory setting and “recreate” a lichen have so far failed. It turns out that this may be because our understanding of lichens has been too simple (!!!), and that at least some are composed not of two distinct species, but rather three. This third species is another, unrelated, fungus, and appears to reside almost entirely within the lichen’s outermost layers, embedded within thick scaffold of sugar. Their exact function within the colony (ecosystem?) remains unclear, however.

Women at the Beginnings of Art

The first indisputable human art (though it’s impossible to say what its creators thought of it) are cave paintings found throughout Europe and Asia. The earliest example is in modern-day Indonesia, but the best preserved sites are in Spain and France. These paintings typically feature local (at the time) animal species, and occasionally images that appear to depict hunting. Often hand stencils were left behind, presumably the mark of the painter.

Up until now, the typical narrative has been that these were painted by male hunters or shaman. But a recent analysis has up-ended this story, as it appears that three quarters of the hand prints were made by women. Even more interestingly, the amount of sexual dimorphism exhibited in these stencils was significantly higher than in modern humans.

That this work both counters the typical male-centric narrative we have imposed upon ancient peoples, while at the same time suggesting that there was greater sexual dimorphism (and thus, presumably, gender differences) in those societies, seems on the face of it almost contradictory. The lesson here may be that gender roles in human society - and their relationship to our species’ secondary sexual characteristics - are far more fluid than we’re generally comfortable acknowledging.

And that gives me a significant degree of hope for the future.

Multi-Generational Iron Age Engineering

Scattered across Asia are giant artifacts known as “desert kites”, low structures composed of piled rock that form geometric patterns that can stretch for up to a kilometer. These structures appear to have been massive “nets” designed to capture migrating animal herds, funneling them into shallow pits where they were easily slaughtered. If the discarded antelope bones near these kill pits are any indication, these massive traps probably decimated the great ungulate herds that had previously roamed from the Middle East to Uzbekistan.

But the kites were not some sudden innovation: Rather “the sites appear to have been built over a span of more than a thousand years” by “pastoral tribes related to the Scythians who roamed the steppes in the fifth century B.C.” How these tribes managed to continue the project for so long is particularly interesting to me, as the projects our civilization has begun to contend with - from repairing the Earth’s ecosystems to traveling beyond the solar system - are likely to require similar timescales to complete. That the kites provided their builders and maintainers with a concrete benefit, in the form of a regular food source, was probably a significant factor here… But one doesn’t have to look far to find examples of humans squandering similar opportunities. What allowed the kite builders to continue their work for a thousand years, while so many other societies failed to coordinate over much shorter time scales?

The Unfortunate History of Zika Mosquito Eradication

Atlas Obscura has posted an interesting history of efforts to eradicate the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries yellow fever and the Zika virus, from the Americas.

The general take-away is that it’s possible to eliminate the mosquitoes like A. aegypti, but only with truly heroic (and authoritarian) efforts. While Atlas Obscura is careful to note that such an eradication program would probably have been politically impossible in the United States, it also doesn’t help that at the same time Brazil was working to eradicate the mosquito the US army was busy breeding and releasing hundreds of thousands of them in an effort to determine their effectiveness as a biological weapon.

Unfortunately, US “national security” interests continue to trump public health efforts, so chalk this up as yet another lesson not learned.

The Global Proto-Fascist Moment

Those of you who know me know that I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton. But her “alt-right” speech on August 25th was an excellent (if surface-level) overview of the movement and the Trump campaign’s increasing dependence on it.

For me, what was most notable about the speech was Clinton’s refusal to frame Trump’s relationship with Putin in the “puppet and puppet-master” terms that have been implicit in many of the stories about the DNC email breach. Rather, she draws parallels between Trump, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, and Putin, placing them all within the context of the same global movement.

Just yesterday, one of Britain’s most prominent right-wing leaders, a man named Nigel Farage, who stoked anti-immigrant sentiments to win the referendum to have Britain leave the European Union, campaigned with Donald Trump in Mississippi.

Farage has called for a bar on the children of legal immigrants from public schools and health services, has said women are and I quote “worth less” than men, and supports scrapping laws that prevent employers from discriminating based on race - that’s who Donald Trump wants by his side when he is addressing an audience of American voters.

And the grand godfather of this global brand of extreme nationalism is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

I think that this is exactly right. The whole “Trump is Putin’s puppet” frame has always rung a bit hollow to me, and the idea that ideologically similar political leaders would ally themselves across national boundaries is not without historic precedent. Clinton calls the present alliance one based upon “extreme nationalism”, but I think that Sarah Kendzior is closer to the mark when she observes that Putin, like Trump, has shown remarkable appeal within the multinational white supremacist movement.

Certainly we do seem to be having a global moment here, one that Putin, Trump, and Farage are all close to the nexus of. Nationalist. White supremacist. One might almost say “proto-fascist”.

Capitalism and the Hollowing of Politics

I finally got around to reading Emmett Rensin’s massive essay on the smug style in American liberalism, and… I didn’t find it as compelling as many of the folks on my Twitter feed seemed to find it. But Rensin’s description of the performative character of American liberalism put me in mind of another essay that i recently read, “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump”.

It’s hard to sum up Peter Gordon’s argument in “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited”, so I’m just going to suggest that you go read it now. And then go read Rensin’s piece, because, oh boy, do they go together. The performative, hollowed out of politics that Adorno places at the root of fascist society (I won’t call it a “movement” or “personality”, for reasons that reading Gordon’s essay should make clear) are spookily similar to the social impulses Rensin decries in American liberalism.

This is “liberal fascism”, but not of the ahistorical Jonah Goldberg variety. Rather, it seems to me that the adherents of both American liberalism and conservatism may have been politically “hollowed out” by the same social process; that one movement has come to more closely parallel historic fascism is less an issue, then, than the process by which both have come to represent a reflexive acting of identity. That Adorno saw this as a natural outgrowth of late capitalism is, I think, telling.

I’m not sure where it goes from here. Adorno himself seems to have been pretty pessimistic about the entire situation… But then again capitalism now seems intent on committing suicide by automation, so I don’t know. Perhaps this historic moment too shall pass, and with it the fascist dissolution of politics and identity.

Transparent Wood

On a less depressing note, what’s stronger than steel, has better thermal insulation than glass, and you can see through? It’s not transparent aluminum (sorry Star Trek fans); rather, researchers at the University of Maryland have figured out how to create transparent wood by replacing the wood’s lignin with an epoxy.

The properties of transparent wood make it interesting in a variety of building contexts. I’m curious what the carbon footprint of producing the material is - without knowing more I’d expect it to be less than more conventional building materials like concrete and glass. Further out, it would be interesting to see if trees could be genetically engineered to produce transparent wood (or something similar).

Perhaps one day we will find ourselves growing, rather than mining, the raw materials for our civilization.

The Anthropocene Gets a Start Date

The concept of the “Anthropocene” got its start in the 1980s as a way of putting the magnitude of humanity’s impact on the Earth in perspective. It has since gained rapid acceptance among environmental activists and writers, and despite its apparently self-aggrandizing name, is generally used as a warning: The global changes that humanity is making are unplanned and uncontrollable, and are negatively impacting both ourselves and many of our fellow species. The Anthropocene is not a place of honor.

This past month, a working group tasked with studying the geologic relevancy of the Anthropocene returned its verdict: The modern world is likely to leave a lasting geologic mark in the form of radioactive fallout from atomic testing and significant fossil-fuel-related carbon deposits. The Anthropocene should be recognized as a new geologic epoch, beginning sometime shortly after World War II.

I have to admit to being somewhat ambivalent about this recommendation myself. The concept of the Anthropocene has significant utility, but I worry about the hubris of elevating our current crises to the level of geologic event. The human world is changing rapidly right now, and it’s unclear to me that there will not be even “better” indicators of humanity’s global impact in the future.

To define the Anthropocene now seems to imply a belief that humanity is on track to resolve the crises that ushered it in… A belief for which there seems, at the present moment, little evidence.

The (Next) Closest “Earth” We’ll Ever Get

Astronomers have announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting within the “habitable zone” of Poxima Centauri. It’s pretty unclear how “habitable” this new planet actually is: While only slightly larger than our own world and orbiting within the region that liquid water would exist, the world is also almost certainly tidally locked towards Poxima Centauri and is frequently buffeted by intense X-ray flares.

Still… There is no star closer to Earth than Proxima Centauri, and so far no extra-solar planet yet discovered that more closely resembles our own than this one. This is as “good” as it gets.

What we don’t yet know, and we likely won’t know for at least another forty years, is how “good” that actually is.


A visualization of global shipping traffic circa 2012.