Friday, July 19, 2019

A Science Utopia? Visions of Arthur C. Clarke, part two. Constrained by Evolution

The fiftieth anniversary of the first moonwalk is tomorrow!

Last time, I posted about some utopian visions from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1986 book “July 20, 2019,” which is the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon walk. Some of Clarke’s ideas have happened, and some were laughably off target. Since Clarke was better than anyone else at speculating about the future, that meant that we were probably all off target in the 1980s.

But why did Clarke get some of these things wrong?

Some of Clarke’s off-target predictions were caused by his assumption that humans would, in general, do what was best for the world. Both history and the process of evolution tell us that the technological advances that occur are those that make some individuals rich, even if it makes life worse for most people in the world. For example, Clarke assumed, reasonably enough, that robots can do factory jobs better than humans. You don’t have to pay them, they never get tired, and they won’t sue you. Clarke predicted, “No factory jobs will be left in 2019.” But the simple fact is that there are millions of very poor people who will work for almost nothing; such workers really are cheaper than robots. Clarke also predicted that there will be “more leisure and discretionary income for many workers.” But natural selection, applied to societies, assures that this could not occur. Workers compete for jobs, and the workers who are willing to take almost-full-time jobs (without benefits) and work at night and on weekends and vacations will get the jobs.

Despite his usual hard-headed careful thinking, Clarke shared some misconceptions that are still widespread. He wrote that overpopulation requires “emigration to distant terrains.” Sounds simple enough; too many people here on Earth, send them to the moon. But a few figures show the absurdity of this belief. The population of Earth has a net annual increase of about 80 million people. (Back in 1969, it was even greater, about 100 million.) There is not enough money in the world to send 80 million people a year to the moon and keep them alive. If, as Clarke predicted, world population growth would have stopped in 1990, something he should have known in 1986 would be impossible, then this whole reason for space colonization would be nonexistent.

Here is possibly the most important point. “Who could have known in 1969,” wrote Clarke, “that the Apollo mission would leave man unchanged?” The answer to this question reveals exactly why so many of Clarke’s predictions were wrong: Humans are the product of millions of years of evolution, and this includes our behavior. One reason that metal bodies of vehicles (as opposed to fuel-efficient fiberglass bodies) still exist is that tough redneck guys consider big metal trucks to be essential to their self-identity. One reason we will never have fake mental sex replace real sex (as Clarke predicted) is that many men use real sex not just for fun but for dominance. Clarke speculated that there would still be wars in 2019 but they would be fought by robots. This has not happened, in part because humans, at least males, like to play the fantasy role of the great warrior, and do not want to let robots do all of it for them. Our future, just like our past, will be constrained by evolution.

The conclusion I reach from Clarke’s book is that, fifty years after the first moonwalk, human nature is unchanged. Therefore the world is even more dangerous and unstable than it was when Clarke wrote in 1986.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Science Utopia? "July 20, 2019" Visions of Arthur C. Clarke, part one.

In 1986, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a book entitled “July 20, 2019.” I think it is just the right time for us to take a look at this book.

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) is best remembered as a science fiction writer (especially 2001, A Space Odyssey). One of the reasons that he was a great writer was that he thought seriously about the implications of technological developments. Many people foresaw the development of advanced computers, but Clarke invented the computer HAL that passed the intelligence threshold and took control of a space ship.

Though Clarke was insightful and honest about the unexpected problems that might result from technological advance, his 1986 book entitled July 20, 2019 was mostly technological optimism. I recently read this book, and took notes on it with a 50-year-old pencil on a 20-year-old sheet of scratch paper while propped up reading in a 30-year-old bed. This date is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 Neil Armstrong moonwalk.

When humans first walked on the moon, anything seemed possible. Among the people who felt this way was, apparently, Clarke, and he still felt that way in 1986. Now that July 20, 2019 has arrived, we can look at Clarke’s predictions and see how close he came.

As Clarke noted, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” Clarke’s predictions were much closer than such predictions would have been on July 20, 1969, and certainly better than predictions made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century (Paris au XXe si├Ęcle). Of course, Clarke was a little off. I’m not criticizing him, but I think an examination of his predictions will teach us something interesting about life and the world.

Some of his predictions were clear extensions of 1986 technology.

  • He knew videotapes would be replaced by a hard digital medium, which he called vidules.
  • In 1986 there were already word processing systems, and Clarke foresaw programs that would tell you when what you wrote was wrong. This technology has come, to the extent that some of us find it annoying.
  • He predicted that hospitals would be competing for patients; that laser surgery would be routine; and that there would be more women doctors. He foresaw more home medical tests, the results of which you could type into a computer, which would send them to your doctor.
  • Clarke foresaw roboticized homes: homes with robot vacuum cleaners, homes that could detect your mood and make automatic adjustments in temperature or even play the most appropriate background music. “The house of 2019 will take care of its owner’s every need.”
  • Clarke foresaw the end of metallic cars.
  • Clarke described international space stations—numerous, not just one.

As you can see, he was not too far off on the above predictions.

In addressing entertainment, Clarke said that the future would be fun. He did not perhaps foresee YouTube and blogs, but he said computers would allow individuals to create and publicize their own work. The only thing about which he was wrong was that he predicted television programs would dub the viewers’ faces into the actors’ bodies.

Most of Clarke’s predictions sounded unbelievable when he made them but were within the realm of the possible.

  • Clarke wrote, “I’ll be only 102 in 2019, which by then will be no unusual age.” Medical research might very well have been able to allow people to live far beyond age 100.
  • Clarke envisioned a commercial moon base, that is, one that was profitable, rather than just a massive drain on the NASA budget. The work on these bases would primarily be done by self-replicating robots. Manufacturing might very well be easier in reduced gravity. We could have done this, though I am not sure that it would have been worth the effort and cost.
  • Scientists knew that neural circuits produced effects that could be measured from outside of the skull. Today, this is the whole basis of brain scans. Clarke envisioned that information from such scans could be used to control the movement of, say, an artificial limb. This is now becoming reality, however far-fetched it seemed in 1986.
  • Clarke foresaw great changes in education, especially that distance education would begin to replace schools. Course papers would be graded and returned by computer. But he was wrong in saying that this education could consist of a professor lecturing (a hologram professor, no less).
  • Clarke predicted that maglev (magnetic levitation) trains would be common—and maybe they could have been, were it not for the self-interest and political power of fossil fuel corporations. He foresaw fusion power, which turned out to be harder to produce than anyone might have guessed.

In some cases, the predictions were almost laughably off target. Most of these had to do with brain technology.

Clarke makes the assumption that everything about our behavior and feelings results from some structural or chemical condition in the brain. True this may be, but Clarke thought that the solutions to all of our mental stresses therefore had straightforward solutions. In 2019, Clarke said, “a mind engineer can look inside your brain and see your insecurities in Technicolor.” He said we would know which drugs were “guaranteed to make your head a nicer place in which to live.” An Oedipus complex could be cured with Oedipills. One pill (mnemosyne) to make you remember, another (nepenthe) to make you forget. Drugs, coupled with the implantation of false memories, can make you forget your miserable past and believe nice, nice things about yourself. Implantation of false memories could, he said, turn bigots into nice people. There would even be a drug (dionysiax) “to shake up a straight-laced libido.” And another drug to eliminate the fear of death once it had become inevitable. At the time, Ecstasy had just been invented, and Clarke wrote about it as if there was no down side to this development. There would be machines to entrain your brain waves to not only eliminate insomnia but also to allow lucid dreaming. In this way, you could go into your own head and purge recurring nightmares. You could even share dreams with a community of other people, including lucid, shared erotic dreams. He thought 2019 would be right in the middle of “the orgasmic age.” (This is not what I expected from Arthur C. Clarke.) These mental experiences, he predicted, would replace religion.

In fact, Clarke speculated that by 2019 the world would be a sexual paradise, without any bad consequences. The reason for this is that most of the bad consequences of uninhibited sex in the twentieth century and, as it turns out, the twenty-first—sexual disease, unintended pregnancy, sexual assault, etc.—resulted from the sex act itself, which by 2019 would be replaced by electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center. If not that, then, for men, a rectal implant that would stimulate penis nerves. I assume Clarke meant that even masturbation would be obsolete by 2019.

I did not make any of these things up.

In the next essay, I will continue the exploration of what Arthur C. Clarke thought the world might be like in 2019.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Flowers: They Aren't Just Pretty

I have posted a new video in the series Silent Struggle of Plants: Flowers, TheyAren’t Just Pretty.

In this video, we take a close look at a trumpet creeper flower (Campsis radicans), an abundant summertime vine in much of the United States. It is certainly a pretty flower. But flowers have to pay for themselves, or else the plant loses its investment in the marketplace of evolutionary struggle, as explained in the previous essay. A plant that spends too much on its flowers faces extinction as surely as a plant that spends too little.

In particular, a flower has to be a successful advertisement to pollinators. The trumpet creeper uses its bright red color to attract hummingbirds from far away, and offers a reward of pollen and nectar at the bottom of a long tube that is perfectly suited to the hummingbird’s long bill. (Of course, no hummingbirds dared to visit during this video.) Other pollinators tend to ignore trumpet creepers; bees, for example, cannot see red, and they tend to not notice these flowers.

I hope to show in this video—and in the next one also—that flowers aren’t just pretty, but are an investment in successful reproduction. A plant cannot afford to produce showy, but useless, flowers.

I am working on a book, tentatively entitled Silent Struggle: The Hidden World of Plants. Watch for it!

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Silent Struggle of the Leaves!

I have posted another video in a series, The Hidden Lives of Plants. This inaugural video is the Silent Struggle of the Leaves! The URL is here.

Join me out in a peaceful forest. Actually, it is not peaceful; there are silent struggles going on. I don’t just mean spiders eating insects down where you cannot see them. Animals are not the only organisms that hunt, hide, fight, and feast. The plants do so also, slowly and silently.

Plants deploy their leaf area in order to get sunlight for photosynthesis, which is how they make their food. Natural selection rewards the plants that do this the best. But these are not necessarily the plants that make the most leaf tissue or leaf area. Leaves have to pay for themselves; they must produce enough food to make up for their construction and maintenance costs. Any plant that produces too much leaf material would risk losing the game of natural selection as surely as a plant that produces too little.

That is, the silent arena for struggle in a forest is not so much a battlefield as it is a marketplace.

I am working on a book, tentatively entitled Silent Struggle: The Hidden World of Plants. Watch for it!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

An Independence Day Message from Charles Darwin

How do you celebrate Independence Day? My way of commemorating American history was to visit one of the sites that have preserved the memory of the Trail of Tears, a shameful chapter in American history. Americans tend to forget about the dark side of their history during all of the fireworks, beer, and bloody barbecues.

The Cherokee Tribe keeps alive the memory of the Trail of Tears. In 1838, the federal government under Andrew Jackson (the president so highly esteemed by Donald Trump) forced nearly the entire Cherokee tribe to abandon their homes and lives in eastern Tennessee and adjacent regions and walk (a few rode in wagons) to what is now Oklahoma. One of these many thousands of Cherokees was my great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Hildebrand Pettit, who came with her children on the Hildebrand route of the Trail of Tears. They camped for a couple of very cold weeks in winter at a place called Mantle Rock, waiting for the Ohio River to open up enough for the ferry to take them to Illinois where they continued their journey. I regularly visit Elizabeth’s grave, and have now visited Mantle Rock.

The Cherokees like to talk of the Trail of Tears as a Cherokee experience, although Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muskogees, and Seminoles also had their Trails of Tears to Oklahoma. Indeed, similar stories can be told for the approximately five hundred Native tribes. We do not think of the United States as causing the forced marches of refugees, but that is a part of our history, even though an Oklahoma congressman recently referred to the Trail of Tears as a voluntary walk. We pretend we are the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are, for rich white people, which included most of my ancestors. But not for black slaves. And not for Elizabeth, or her daughter Minerva, who married my great great grandfather Lewis Hicks.

I have posted a video about Mantle Rock, where I explain (in Darwin persona) that human nature has elements of good and evil. We have evolved to be good to those inside our group and evil to those outside. The inside group might be our tribe or our religion. Through human history, we have expanded the boundary outward, to include more people in the inside group: first whole countries, then lots of countries (such as the failed League of Nations or the current European Union), the whole world (the United Nations), and some people even include non-human animals or whole ecosystems.

But in recent years, many nations (most notably America) have retracted the boundary. Many Americans now consider those from outside their country to be unworthy of the most basic human dignity, and those outside their party (or even their extreme faction in their party) to be unworthy of any respect. We are rapidly retreating backwards in history in this particular way. Evolution has given us the ability to expand the boundary between “us” and “them” outward, but we are pulling it back inward.

This is what I am thinking about this Independence Day.

Today, millions of refugees are forced from their homes to places that do not welcome them. The United States is one of the countries that does not welcome them. If their skin is dark, there is practically no way they can enter as refugees. We continue to welcome white refugees.

Back in the 1980s Tulsa welcomed a bunch of Burmese refugees from the Zomi tribe. I am a minority in their neighborhood. Good neighbors! But that was a long time ago.

The video is on my YouTube channel.

I post below some of the images of Mantle Rock, a hauntingly beautiful place now maintained by the Nature Conservancy.

Here is the original Trail:

Here is a photo of Berry’s Ferry, the location where the Hildebrand contingent finally crossed the Ohio River.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Poison Ivy Isn't Poison

Yes, you heard that right. Poison ivy is not poison. I recently posted a YouTubevideo in which I cuddle up next to a poison ivy plant (they are ubiquitous in Oklahoma) to address this topic.

Plants—all plants, all the time—are engaged in a silent struggle for existence. You cannot see it, especially in a peaceful forest, but you can imagine it. Leaves contain thousands of different chemicals that are mildly or very toxic to herbivores. This makes perfect sense, because any plant that did not defend its leaves against herbivores—any leaf that said, “Come and eat me!”—would quickly disappear down the gullets of extinction. Each kind of plant has its own cocktail of poisons.

But when a plant defends its leaves, it is an investment decision. Plants that produce too much defensive chemical, and thus waste their precious resources, risk extinction just as surely as a plant that produces too little. A leaf has to pay for itself by photosynthesis, but also by not having excessive maintenance costs, including defense.

None of this, however, explains poison ivy. In poison ivy and related species within the genus Toxicodendron, a set of chemicals collectively called urushiol harm humans, but not most other mammals. According to this scholarly article (which can be downloaded here), “Deer, goats, mice, and other mammals readily eat poison ivy foliage without apparent discomfort.” I have seen squirrels eating the berries. Clearly, urushol is not a metabolic poison.

The human immune system reacts to urushiol as if it is a pathogen. That is, urushiol is an allergen, not a poison. Poison ivy itch is a massive allergy. Some people are more allergic to urushiol than others, just as is the case with other allergens such as pollen (hay fever), gluten, etc. But why does poison ivy affect only humans? It seems incredible to me that humans might have exerted an evolutionary pressure on poison ivy sufficient to select for the urushiol response.

As far as I can tell, no one has explained why poison ivy plants produce urushiol. It must have some function unrelated to defense. There will always be mysteries and unanswered questions in science!

I am working on a book, tentatively entitled Silent Struggle: The Hidden World of Plants. Watch for it!

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Allure of Science

In the eyes of most people, science has a lofty allure. Even people who do not like the conclusions and beliefs of scientists feel this way. Why is this?

The ideal scientists zealously pursue the truth about the natural world, relentlessly cutting away the prejudices that they and others have, and demanding only the best evidence. No sloppy thinking allowed, no reliance on hearsay or single observations. To be a scientist is, in some ways, like being an athlete. Scientific thinking is a discipline. It is available to anyone, but it is usually only professional scientists and science educators who take on the discipline consistently. A scientist exploring the depths of nature, and an athlete running the course, have a kind of golden shimmer quite unlike the sloppy thinker or the armchair athlete.

This is why anti-scientists want to look like scientists. There are numerous anti-scientific think tanks that announce their seriously flawed beliefs in sciencey-sounding jargon. And some religious groups have even started up their own pseudo-scientific journals. They imitate the very appearance and structure of scientific articles: an objective-sounding title; an abstract; a text that cites evidence and analyzes it with reason; a conclusion; and references to other articles previously published on the same topic. They want everyone to think that they are scientists, even as they discredit scientists.

One example is an article in “Answers Research,” the pseudo-journal started by Answers in Genesis, that purports to show that the speed of light has decreased over the last few thousand years. Therefore the red shift does not indicate the universe is billions of years old but that light used to travel a lot faster than it does now. From the link you can download the PDF. The PDF of the article looks exactly like a scientific article, down to the most minute detail of its appearance.

One hallmark of scientific papers is that they are “peer-reviewed,” which means that other competent scientists anonymously review the paper and pass judgment—sometimes fair, sometimes unfair—on whether the paper should be published. If religious pseudo-science articles have “peer review,” it only means that people who share the same delusion have read it prior to publication.

Remember that in such pseudo-journals, anyone can be a peer (in the sense of micturator).

Of course, it is not just creationists who produce fake scientific articles. There are numerous online journals that will print anything so long as it has a sciencey appearance and you pay them. There is no peer review. I discuss this in Chapter 14 of my book Scientifically Thinking. I end that chapter, “I’m thinking about starting a science journal. I only charge $10,000 per article. If you are interested in publishing there, let me know, and remember I’m a peer.”

I suppose I am flattered to be a legitimate member of the scientific community. But, with ever more fake scientific journals, I fear that the public will begin to disbelieve true scientists along with the fake ones. With this, society can no longer benefit from true scientific research.