Monday, December 27, 2010

Earth is a Lucky Planet, Part Two. Thank God for Jupiter?

In a previous entry, I introduced the Rare Earth hypothesis of Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, which states that Earth-like planets on which complex life could have evolved are very rare in the universe. One reason was that Earth revolves around a stable star, the Sun.
Ward and Brownlee also point out that the Earth resides in a very lucky neighborhood of the Solar System. The two sources of luck are Jupiter and the Moon. First, consider Jupiter.

When the Solar System first formed, it was a disc of small asteroids. Many of these asteroids ran into each other and were crushed into planets by their own gravity. These planets continued to mop up asteroids until about 3.9 billion years ago. After that time, few asteroids remained that could crash into the planets. Most of the craters on the Moon (which, as large as some planets, also helped to clear away asteroids) are older than 3.9 billion years. The Moon, which has no wind or weather, has preserved an intact sample of the asteroid impacts that imperiled the early Solar System.

Another important component of the Solar System is comets. There are billions of these dirty balls of ice that orbit the sun just beyond the outer edge of the Solar System. Most of them remain at the edge of the Solar System, but some of them have very elliptical orbits, which bring them close to the sun. They whip around the Sun like a slingshot, and fly back out into the outer edges of the Solar System. While comets are near the sun, solar radiation vaporizes some of the water, creating the comet’s “tail” that everyone recognizes. Before 3.9 billion years ago, there were also a lot of comets, but they are now, like asteroids, comparatively rare.

The principal reason that asteroids and comets now only rarely fall from the sky is the planet Jupiter. Jupiter is so massive, and has such a powerful gravitational field, that it has sucked up most of the asteroids in the inner solar system, except for those in the asteroid belt, whose orbits have been stabilized by that same Jovian gravitation. Any asteroid or comet that happens to come within several million miles of Jupiter is drawn inevitably into its gaseous embrace. This is exactly what happened to the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994. After whipping around the Sun and heading back into the outer reaches of the solar system, this comet slipped too close to Jupiter, whose gravity fractured it into pieces. Each piece created a huge flare of radiation as it fell into Jupiter’s dense atmosphere, and each of the black spots that remained visible for a few weeks was similar in size to the Earth. Therefore Jupiter continues to clear away asteroids and comets from the Solar System. Without Jupiter, asteroids and comets might be hitting Earth so frequently that life would not have a chance to exist for very long.

And then there is Earth’s closest neighbor, the Moon. Most planets have moons, but Earth is the only planet in the Solar System with a moon so large in relation to it. Mars has two tiny moons, Deimos and Phobos, named after the two horses of the war god’s chariot. Jupiter and Saturn have moons larger than ours, but tiny in relation to the planetary masses. Our Moon is large enough and just far enough away to profoundly influence our planet without severely disrupting it. Everyone knows that the tug of the Moon causes the tides. Were it not for tides, there would be no intertidal zone, the only home of thousands of species of organisms. But tides may be of relatively little importance to the planet as a whole, even though they are important to barnacles. The major effect of the Moon on Earth, crucial to the survival of life as a whole, is to stabilize its movement.

As planets revolve around their suns, they rotate on their axes. These rotational axes wobble, pointing in different directions at different times. Any planet with a large amount of wobbling would have unstable climatic zones, since sometimes the equatorial zone and sometimes the polar zones would directly face the sun. The part of a planet directly facing its sun will receive the most intense radiation and be warmest. How could tropical, temperate, and polar plants and animals evolve, if the climates of those zones are extremely variable? This appears to have happened with Earth’s less fortunate little brother, Mars. Earth, however, has not tilted more than about 20 degrees from the plane of its revolution. Even the little bit of wobbling that the Earth does experience has been enough to cause about twenty Ice Ages during the last two million years of Earth history. We have the Moon to thank for the relative stability of Earth’s movements.

Earth is mighty lucky to have neighbors like Jupiter and the Moon. Otherwise, complex life might never have evolved here.

I adapted this essay from part of chapter 1 of my forthcoming book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-aged, Stressed-out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books.

Also do not forget the new YouTube channel that I announced in the previous post (see below).

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Announcing a new YouTube channel

I have started a new channel on YouTube, called The Darwin Channel. You can search for it under my YouTube name, StanEvolve. I have posted three video clips, and more are coming. The first three are:

Darwin meets a monkey
Darwin eats a banana
Charles Darwin and natural law

Friday, December 17, 2010

Earth is a Lucky Planet, Part One. Thank Our Lucky Star

Much of the story of life on planet Earth has been due simply to luck. This is particularly true of the physical environment which has allowed evolution to produce such a diversity of species.

One day in 1950 over lunch with his scientific colleagues, physicist Enrico Fermi heard someone speculate about how many advanced civilizations there must be out in space. Fermi quipped, “So, where are they?” He meant that if there were many advanced civilizations, some of them must be more advanced than we are, and must have invented space travel—and at least some of them should have contacted us by now. This has come to be known as “Fermi’s Paradox.” One answer to this paradox is that there are so few advanced civilizations in the universe that they have not found us yet and probably never will. According to this view, Earth-like planets might be very rare. Very few planets have been as lucky as Earth. According to the “Rare Earth Hypothesis” of planetary scientists Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, we can begin by thanking our lucky star, the Sun.

First, the Sun is a calm and stable star. Many stars fluctuate wildly in their energy output. Such pulsations in energy may prevent life from ever getting started on any planets that revolve around variable stars. In contrast, the Sun has been stable for billions of years. Not perfectly stable, of course. The Sun has had occasional “coronal mass ejections,” in which it propels energy and particles from its outer layer out into the Solar System. One of these mass ejections, on September 1, 1859, was strong enough that it shut down the telegraph systems in the United States and Europe and caused auroras to occur in the skies of even tropical regions. The Sun also has an 11-year sunspot cycle. These variations, however, have not had much effect on Earth. Coronal ejections have not been known to have ever harmed life on Earth (no organisms were harmed when the telegraphs shut down), and solar intensity shifts by only 0.1 percent during the sunspot cycle. The Sun has, in fact, changed its energy output over the billions of years of its existence. It has increased the intensity of its radiation by about 30 percent during that time—but it has done so very gradually.

Second, the Sun is an isolated star. Many stars have partners, forming multiple-star systems—most commonly, binary systems in which two stars swing around each other like dancers. If the Sun were part of such a close family of stars, the other stars would prevent planets from having stable orbits, which might prevent the evolution of life. The Sun is also far away from stars that emit so much energy that they would disrupt or destroy life. For example, a supernova anywhere within a few dozen light years of Earth would wipe out all of life—but there have been no supernovae in the Sun’s neighborhood for at least several billion years. Moreover, stars in the centers of galaxies may be so close together that they would disrupt the revolution of one another’s planets, even if they are not part of multiple-star systems. But the Sun is on a swirling arm far from the center of the galaxy. If we were near the center of the galaxy, many stars would be so close to us that night would not be very dark, and those stars would yank and tug us around and disrupt the stability of our planet’s conditions.

Therefore, it appears that complex life would not have had time to evolve on planets that revolve around most stars. Earth is not just a special planet in our solar system, but in the universe. The story of evolution, as presented in this blog, might be something quite rare in the universe.

The foregoing was adapted from a portion of my upcoming book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-aged, Stressed-out World, soon to be released by Prometheus Books.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fiscal Responsibility in the Evolutionary World

The ongoing economic crisis has focused our attention on the consequences of fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the federal government and of nearly all major corporations. They were the ones that caused the current financial crisis. The principal causes were the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy, and the war in Iraq. The war was sold to the American people as a great investment opportunity, by none other than Paul Wolfowitz who was later rewarded by being made president of the World Bank. First he predicted that it would cost almost nothing to invade and establish a government friendly to our interests; he famously said that the Iraqis would greet us with flowers. Second, he and others counted on oil revenues to pay for the war. But the government and corporations are blaming American citizens for it. For example (in the few remaining weeks before it became illegal) banks raised interest rates and minimum payments on credit accounts on which payments had never been missed.

The natural world is merciless about deficit spending. Plants, for example, never get away with it. They can grow new leaves, stems, or roots only if they have stored away enough molecules (such as starch and minerals) to pay for them. When a plant needs to produce new leaves, stems, and roots, and cannot, it dies. A polar bear must eat enough calories to allow it to produce body heat. Ice floes are merciless to deficit metabolic spending in polar bears. Natural selection does not permit deficit spending in most species.

In humans, the story is not quite so simple. We have invented something virtually unknown in other species: credit. Rather than being a bad thing, it can (within limits) be a good thing, allowing mortgages to buy houses, and other forms of investment. It is a form of social capital, made possible by our highly developed capacity for altruism. Plants can only invest what they have already saved; humans can invest what they are pretty sure they will obtain in the future. For our species, credit is a resource. Our current crisis has resulted from the abuse of this resource. But there is a proper use of the resource. One of them is to invest in health. It is the crushing costs of health care that drive thousands of people into bankruptcy. The enormous costs generated by uninsured people using the emergency room for preventable problems are causing everybodyĆ­s insurance premiums to increase much faster than the rate of inflation. Unlike the Iraq War and the tax cuts for the wealthy, health care is a good investment.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on my website on December 6, 2009.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Strangling of Altruism

This essay is based upon some experience that was too personal to put into my new book, but is suitable for a blog—especially since I suspect some of you have had some similar experiences. Either that or you will pretty soon. Here’s why.

As a university faculty member, I am required by the Department of Homeland Security to complete two online courses of emergency management training. The motivation for these training courses is to avoid the snafus that occurred with Hurricane Katrina and the Columbine shootings, in which emergency response was mired in chaos. Institutions and governments were unprepared and had no idea what to do. And since anyone at any time might be called upon to deal with a crisis situation, then anyone in a position of responsibility (apparently that includes professors) should have a plan and know what to do. The big debacle of Hurricane Katrina was caused by Homeland Security itself, since FEMA was run by a Bush political appointee (trained as a racehorse lawyer) Michael Brown, and they found out about the disaster from watching television. The uncoordinated response was the fault of FEMA but they are ordering us to fix the problem by training ourselves as emergency responders along with, or instead of, them.

So far so good. I consider it my altruistic responsibility to be prepared to assist fellow citizens/humans during an emergency. But the online training session was an exercise in internal contradiction and massive constriction of altruism.

“We’re from the government, we’re here to help” is usually a call to go hide. This was certainly the case here.

First, we were required to memorize a chain of command that is extremely complex. The incident commander is the top dog, and he can appoint “chiefs” of functions such as planning, operations, liaison, logistics, and public information. It is actually a lot more complex than that, because under the chiefs superintend the directors of branches, which supervise the supervisors of divisions. Think of it as a Linnaean taxonomy: responders are species, divisions are genera, branches are families, sections are orders.

And it gets more complex from there. Within each division, I think, there are task forces (consisting of “mixed resources,” where “resources” refers to people) and strike teams, which consist of similar resources. They are also divided into groups, which are functional units, and divisions, which are geographical units. So I guess a medic could be a member of a medical strike team in a group but also in a northeast-part-of-town division.

Second, the taxonomy is always changing. The size of the incident command system (ICS) depends on the incident. If someone drops a bottle of acid in my lab, I am the incident commander, and I can appoint the janitor as my chief of operations, and we can clean up the mess (which is not a trivial thing but need not involve a SWAT team). In doing so, I’d better remember to declare myself commander and officially deputize him as chief. If the acid drips through the floor, then the Director of Physical Plant comes over and becomes the new incident commander, perhaps assigning me to be the chief of liaison, which means that I can go to the department secretary and appoint her as my branch director of liaison so that she can make phone calls. And none of us are supposed to tell anybody outside the university about what is happening, since this is the job of the director of public information, I think. Everyone’s role keeps changing, as the incident gets bigger and then gets smaller as it is dealt with. It is like saying that Canis is a family, and familiaris and latrans are genera, but then along comes Canidae and makes itself the family, and now Canis is a genus and familiaris is a species. Moment by moment, the taxonomy changes.

One of the most important charges is that we must avoid jargon. Yet ICS (incident command system), EOC (emergency operations center), IAP (incident action plan), and ICP (incident command post) were on the final exam for this course, at least a couple of them were, and you are required to pass the exam at 75% if you want your university to continue receiving any federal funds!

Third, none of this might matter except that you cannot take orders from anyone except your immediate supervisor. A branch director cannot take commands from the incident commander but only from his or her section chief. And a chief of operations cannot tell a director of liaison what to do. If the liaison chief is otherwise occupied, the director cannot do anything. So this system creates an unmanageable mess of contradictions.

I have been trained now but I know less than I did before about what to do during an emergency. Used to be that I could consult the brochure, which Campus Safety put on our walls by the doors, to see what to do. Those brochures are nice and clear and easy to find. But now we have to be obedient components of chains of command that keep changing.

Worst of all, this system strangles altruism. A person cannot just go help someone in need. If a student has CPR training, she cannot go and help someone who needs it. She is instead to report to the director of operations and identify herself and receive orders. This was actually a quiz question during the course. I am not making this up. Had I chosen the answer that she was supposed to start administering CPR, it would have been the wrong answer. Supposedly she should step right over people who need help and go look for a director of operations (not the director of planning or of liaison!). Here is an exact quote I wrote down during the course: “Until you are mobilized, you remain in your everyday role.”

Rather than facilitating emergency response or altruism, this plan, imposed on us by a federal agency, will force an unclear but inviolable chain of command which puts a person’s authority over the need to help someone. And this chain of command is not the same as the university chain of command. At our university, the administration demands strict adherence to their chain of command. What will happen if, in an emergency, the Physical Plant director claims (rightly) to be my superior but the dean claims to be in charge? Could I get reprimanded by the university chain of command for obeying the ICS?

But, oh well, I got a nice certificate to put on my wall, certifying my altruist status.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Future of Altruism

I continue my discussion of altruism, one of the most important human evolutionary adaptations.

President Barack Obama was swept into office on a tide of enthusiasm. But he is one idealistic altruist, allied with a few other idealistic people, and can only work through a slow and contaminated mass of administrators. At least, President Obama has made efforts to create a “transparent” administration, even to the extent of placing minutes of departmental meetings online. This could not contrast more strongly with the preceding administration, particularly the notoriously secretive office of former Vice President Dick “Dick” Cheney. We Americans dare to expect our government to be altruistic. The majority of Americans believe Barack Obama is altruistic, but remain unconvinced about his appointees, many of whom were financial executives receiving large compensations.

Altruism evolved in communities. The death of communities, and their replacement by multinational corporations, may prove to be the death of altruism. When, for example, all food is produced by a few global corporations, we have to take what they offer. Contrast this with farmers’ markets, where you buy food face-to-face from the people who produce it. When the people who run a community or a state live in it, they are much more accountable to their neighbors. This is the reason that conferences of mayors or of governors have much more bipartisan cooperation than Congress. The local altruistic citizenry of nearly every community wants energy efficiency and a clean environment; but Congress listens to the moneyed interests of the coal, oil, and gas industries, who want us to burn as much fossil fuel as possible. When large corporations and political parties are in control of the world, there is no voice for altruism.

We have already gotten a few glimpses into what the world could be like if many countries suffered a breakdown of altruism. We call them “failed states.” The genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in the last decade of the twentieth century, or in the Sudan in the first decade of the twenty-first, show how people who had been living with a semblance of peace can suddenly erupt into insane violence. Just as the human brain is capable of altruism, it is also capable of classifying other human beings as non-persons and killing them with no feelings of empathy whatever. This is unlikely to occur except under highly unusual circumstances, but it is clearly possible.

It would take thousands of years for the genetic underpinnings of human altruism to erode away. Unfortunately, the cultural norms of altruism are essential for unlocking these genes. If we interrupt the cultural transmission of altruism, we may collapse into a nightmare world of dark conflict in which the old altruistic tendencies are groping around, unable to emerge.

A passage similar to this appears in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books. See my website for more information.