Human extinction, or not.

(This was a Twitter thread)

There are very few examples on planet in human history where human societies or civilizations completely vanished. Even in times of catastrophic change–creation of the Sahara, 90% fatal pandemics in Amazon, volcanic devastation–human beings have stayed, even if reduced from large scale societies to hunter gatherer bands. Society changes, civilizations collapse, but the species does not go extinct. Indeed, our very evolution has been achieved by dealing with continuous stress and change including population crashes to as few as one thousand or less individuals for the entire species for as long as 100,000 years. We survived, evolved and thrived under extraordinary pressures that would have driven most species–indeed all other hominid species–to extinction. We are extraordinarily adaptable and virtually everything about us is designed to allow us to survive under extremely stressful conditions. That’s why we are here and not a single other human species remains. Society, culture, civilization are all dispensable, it is our extended family that is the default unit that allows Homo sapiens to survive almost anywhere under any conditions. The point of this is that no matter how severe climate change is, no matter if civilization collapses and our numbers are reduced to 1/100,000,000th of today’s population, Homo sapiens will survive. It would take something much more drastic–a giant asteroid, perhaps, or a nuclear war involving thousand of warheads–to completely annihilate the species forever. Both of which are possible, of course. But we will survive even the worst case global warming. It will not be comfortable, the impact on nearly all the world’s ecosystems will be devastating, and it’s hard to imagine a more dystopian future, but it will be livable for just enough of us to keep the genome going.

Axolotl

Weird how cultural perceptions change over time. When I was a kid, axolotls were really freaky looking, almost science fiction, even scary, like aliens. As bizarre looking a creature as you could find in earth. Even the name, a Nahuatl word (they are found in lakes around Mexico City), meant water monster. A little foot long water monster, pink (a relatively rare color in the wild, they are typically brownish) and exotic and weird, especially with those bizarre juvenile gills retained in adulthood. Now in this adorable educational video, fifty years later, they are seen as positively cute. They look cute to me even. How can anyone not love that anthropomorphized smile? Ripley (distinctly not a Nahuatl word for water monster) seems to have a personality, like an anime character (though in Japan, where giant salamanders are five feet long and without the neotenic gills, salamanders are more unnerving than cute and even show up in a Godzilla movie). Somewhere over this past half century there’s been a fundamental shift in what is freakish and what is cute, a shift that even changed my own perceptions. Who knows how this works. Collective thinking. We have barely scratched the surface of the surface of the surface in understanding our brains, and not gotten anywhere at all in figuring how all our brains work together. We stumble through existence with this unparalleled device in our heads, clueless, almost, as to what it is making us think and see and do and remember.

Instant Towering Inferno

My neighbor Chris was doing some online digging into the London hotel fire:

As far as I can tell from poking around online, the cladding on Grenfell Tower is in general a composite of a core material (for stiffness?) sandwiched in aluminum. While aluminum itself isn’t going to catch fire, it will of course conduct heat like the dickens. The manufacturers’ product specs I look at offer non-fire-rated (polyethylene a/k/a PE a/k/a resin) and fire-rated (not sure the material) cores. I’m gonna guess Grenfell’s owners didn’t spring for the fire-rated type.

He went on to point out that the hotel that burned in Dubai last year also used the non-fire-rated cladding in the outside panels. It too went up like a torch. As would most of the towers in Dubai, all made of same material. Depending on how many of today’s skyscrapers were built to the same low standard to save on construction material costs, there could be more fires just like this to come.

And one more grim point. Basically, every one of these buildings can be weaponized simply by starting a fire in the right place. Instant Towering Inferno. No need to fly a jetliner into a building or park a truck full of nitrates next to one. Just the right incendiary device and bam, you have annihilated a whole vertical community. They believe it was an overheated refrigerator motor that began yesterday’s conflagration. It could be something as insignificant as a tossed cigarette next time. It’s hard to imagine terrorists or saboteurs not taking advantage of this. Builders buy this non-fire retardant polyethylene wholesale from numerous manufacturers. There’s definitely a very competitive market for it and building codes can be very lax, even it turns out, in the middle of London. The city forgot the incendiaries that set it ablaze in the Blitz.  One wonders where else they’ve forgotten, or just didn’t give a damn. There are probably hundreds if not thousands of towers around the globe wrapped in the stuff, hidden beneath shiny aluminum exteriors that reflect the sky and the clouds and the setting sun.

Grenfell Tower3

Grenfell Tower

You say potato, and I say peruna.

So I tried boiling the potatoes until soft and then dunking them in a bowl of ice water for ten seconds and then peeling off the skins. It worked. Life just got a little bit easier. The skillet already had the diced onion, bell pepper, sweet pepper and collard greens. Dropped in the spuds and let them, brown and make an unholy mess out of the bottom of the pan and hot damn, Irish-German heaven. Spuds, baby, Kartoffels, pomme de terre, papas in a brand new bag. Well, recipe. Well, old recipe, new technique. Thank god for the Incas. Without them we might still be eating gruel. Though I don’t know who the lazy bum was who brainstormed on this boiling and dunking thing. A Finn maybe, leaping from the sauna into a ice cold lake. Peruna they call a potato. Comes from Swedish, something to do with pears. Probably Swedes fucking with their minds. Here, Aarni, have a pear. Though the Germans used to call then earth pears. At some point they became kartoffels, from the Italian. The French called them earth apples. The Swiss still call them earth apples. A little too close to road apples. I wonder about Europeans sometimes.

The Finns eventually Finnicized it into peruna. That crazy language has fifteen cases. Each one changes peruna into something else, and same for plurals. By itself a potato is a peruna. More than one is perunat. But as they were mine they were perunoiden. When I dropped them into the pot they were perunoihin. Once in the pot they were perunoissa. As they were boiling they were perunoita. When they were finally softened they were perunoiksi. As I took them out of the pot they were perunoista. When I removed the skins they were perunoitta. In the skillet with onions and peppers they were perunoineen. When I took them off the fire they were perunoilta. As I put them on the plate they were perunoille. As they sat there on the plate they were perunoilla. And when I gave them to my wife they were perunat again. (For those of you taking notes, those were the plural declensions for the nominative, genitive, illative, inessive, partitive, translative, elative, abessive, comitative, ablative, allative, adessive, and accusative cases.)

Luckily we ate them in English.

So maybe it’s not an argentine ant super colony after all.

argentine-ant-illustration_568x336

An argentine ant, courtesy of Orkin.

One of my favorite ant things–the genetically uniform super colony of Argentine ants that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco–may not be a genetically uniform super colony of Argentine ants that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco after all. Scientists are still testily debating it. Even in the very dry Science Daily article linked below you can sense myrmecologists getting angry. “How can they be genetically homogenous across wide, wide scales [i.e., San Diego to San Francisco] when they’re not even genetically homogenous across hundreds of meters?” A pro-super colony scientist sighs and reiterates the reason that it is a supercolony. It goes back and forth. No decision.  But the article gives the skeptics a final poke. “This story [about the supercolony] has really captured the imagination of the public, and it’s somewhat frustrating” a revisionist myrmecologist complains, “But it’s such a neat story, people sometimes don’t want to hear conflicting evidence.” A cheap shot, sure, but it made me squirm. Her colleague piles on. “I think real ants are much more interesting than the stories we make up about ants. We’d have better stories to tell if we started with the actual data.” The article ends there. The pro-supercolony scientists don’t get a shot back. It’s a little unfair. Meanwhile, I’ll have to wait to see how this turns out, being that I believe I’ve written on this supercolony a couple times and therefore may be spreading alternative facts faster than a myrmecological Kelly Anne Conway. But to be honest I hope the revisionists are wrong, because it really is a neat story, this huge gnarly supercolony of genetically identical tiny little ants beneath our feet. I hate to give it up. Of course science doesn’t really care what you hope is true. Nor do ants, for that matter. I was just looking at an argentine ant on the kitchen counter this morning. She said nothing but scurried away before I had a chance to squish her.

Scientists Question Reports Of Massive Ant Supercolonies In California And Europe

Love is in the air

The San Diego Alligator Lizard…two males vying for same female. The male grabs the female by the neck with his jaws and mounts her. They will stay like this for a whole day, sometimes, reminding me of a story you will never hear. Anyway, if only my pal Jeff had stayed and observed for several hours to see who succeeded, taking notes and talking like David Attenborough. I imagine both males did eventually. Hot lizardesses swing. The fact that both gnarly lizard dudes are fighting for the same female makes me wonder if their sperm contains spermicide that will attempt to destroy the previous lover’s sperm. I suppose there’s no reason you couldn’t have multiple fathers as there will be several eggs. This is getting way too complicated.

San Diego Alligator Lizard threesome

San Diego Alligator Lizards in Highland Park on a lusty April day. Photo by Jeff Boynton.

So it turns out octopuses will never rule the earth.

Wow, here’s one of those science articles in The Atlantic–“Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” by the excellent science writer Ed Yong–that demand a full reading because every paragraph is a cephalopodic mind freak. Turns out that cephalopods have an extraordinary ability to edit their own nervous system genes in a massive way. The astonishing nervous systems and intelligence of the octopus has been created by editing the RNA, as if humans could go in and edit our own DNA to make us smarter, say. Which we can’t. Hence Trump.

The downside of this is that in order to this, cephalopods have to maintain the integrity of their RNA…and I mean maintain it over hundreds of millions of years. So their nervous systems have evolved to incredible degrees–human brains are much more intelligent than any cephalopod, obviously, but the other parts of our nervous system are infinitely less so–we can’t disappear into our surroundings, say, or communicate via rapidly changing colors in what is probably language, or control eight limbs that operate autonomously from one another. But if you carefully edit your RNA to dispose of any unwanted mutations you are essentially putting a brake on natural selection, that is, you are not letting evolution make the changes that alter the genome and create new species out of older species. Humans are the result of series of changes in genomes from apes twenty of thirty million years ago that went into overdrive about four million years ago. The Australopithecenes four million years ago were basically bipedal chimpanzees. Two million years later was Homo erectus , every inch a human. We showed up 200,000 years ago, though none of us today are exactly the same as we were then. We have not stopped evolving (our brains are larger, for one thing, and structured a bit differently). And we are still apes, just dramatically transformed by an extraordinary number of mutations. Our genome has changed fundamentally over and over, and you can even see that process at work around you. In me, for instance. I’m way taller than most people, everything bigger. I’m full of mutations. I could have eventually led to a sub species of really huge, really dumb homo sapiens–homo sapien brickus–and ruined everything. Luckily I had no kids.

But this can’t happen among cephalopods. Well, among coleoid cephalopods, the smart ones, that is octopus, squid and cuttlefish. Nautilus never made that adaptation–this may have been nearly half a billion years ago–and so never developed the ability to edit their own RNA. And while an ocean existence makes for far less evolutionary change over vast expanses of time than a land existence (the ocean changes very little, and is much safer) so that the nautilus today looks remarkably similar to the nautilus in 400 million year old fossil beds–natural selection at some point extended its lifespan to twenty years. That is a very good age for a mollusc (cephalopods are molluscs.). That was about how long our own early ancestors, australopithecines like Lucy, lived. Nautiluses have unedited naturally occurring mutations in their genes, and while Nautilus lives are so stable and unchanging there is little chance for any of those mutations to succeed as new species, it has lengthened their life span because living longer is apparently useful (or not unuseful, anyway). And that was a very fundamental change in the nautilus genome. Three hundred million years ago they probably lived no longer than an octopus, two years. The genome was fundamentally altered. Probably very slowly, over tens if not hundreds of million of years, but it was altered, and now a pet nautilus would live longer than your cat.

Your pet hamster would outlive your pet octopus, though. Would outlive virtually every coleoid cephalopod (that is, all the cephalopods but the nautilus). For at least 350 and perhaps as much as 480 million years the octopus has carefully maintained the vast number of edits in its RNA, because their extraordinary nervous system is based upon the integrity of that design, just as the computer you are reading this on can only function if the memory maintains the integrity of its design–go in their and randomly mutate the thing, moving chips around, deleting some, adding others, and you’ll be looking at a blank blue screen. The cephalopod nervous system, perhaps as extraordinary a work of nature as our own, is a delicate construct, built by billions of generations of cephalopods carefully maintaining the original RNA structure and making myriad new carefully selected edits. It’s like they’ve been speaking the same language for half a billion years with the same basic grammar, so that one could pick up a book written hundreds of millions of years ago and be able to read it still. It would be less changed than English now has changed from English a thousand years ago. There is a continuum in octopus RNA across deep time. Nothing has fundamentally changed, Roman Latin didn’t turn into Chinese. The same basic design has remained for half a billion years, just fine tuned to an amazing degree. Which means you can never have a giant six legged octopus attacking ships and tearing the Golden Gate bridge apart. You would need to have a genome that can change dramatically with unedited RNA allowing for mutation. Nor could ever have them leaving the water and becoming land animals. Or shedding limbs and walking about. Or flying starships and colonizing other planets. You can’t even change the octopus genome to let them live longer than two years.

So you have extremely intelligent invertebrates–smarter than probably 99% of vertebrates–trapped in bodies that, like some ancient, primitive molluscs of the Cambrian Era, live a couple years, lay a zillion eggs, fertilize them, and die. You can fine tune your nervous system till you are an eight legged Einstein but you can’t alter that ancient method of self-destructive reproduction. So you have invertebrate geniuses trapped in bodies designed for no brains at all. Octopuses will never rule the earth. They’ll live an astonishing two years–some only six months–and die. Squids live a year. Even giant squid live less than five years. (Their vertebrate arch enemy, the sperm whale, lives to be seventy.)  And so “Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” was one of the most exciting articles I ever read, and one of the saddest.

However…recently a deep sea Graneledone boreopacifica was observed guarding its brood for an astonishing fifty three months (the longest brood time ever witnessed in the animal kingdom)…which is over twice as long as the typical longer lived octopus lifespan (some live as little as six months). A female octopus spends about one fourth of her life brooding and then dies (of starvation) and if that ratio holds, the Graneledone boreopacifica could live as long as twenty years….or about the length of a nautilus life span. Somebody let some mutations slip through, apparently. Perhaps there’s no reason an octopus can’t live as long as a nautilus. An incredibly smart nautilus at that. Of course, that depends on whether those mutations don’t unravel that beautifully maintained matrix of RNA edits that goes back half a billion years upon which the extraordinary sophistication of the coleoid nervous system is dependent. But a problem solving, tool using octopus could do quite a bit in a twenty year life span. Maybe in a hundred million years we’ll know. Well, we won’t. We’re terrestrial animals, and mammals, and primates, and humanoid. Ours is a tough neighborhood. All the various human species have had a million years or two and then gone extinct. It’s a rough world out here on land.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/04/octopuses-do-something-really-strange-to-their-genes/522024/