William H. Calvin
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON 98195-1800 USA
This page is at http://WilliamCalvin.com/bk3/bk3day13.htm
|The River That Flows Uphill (Sierra Club Books 1987) is my river diary of a two-week whitewater trip through the bottom of the Grand Canyon, discussing everything from the Big Bang to the Big Brain. It became a bestseller in German translation in 1995.||AVAILABILITY limited; the US edition is now out of print. There are German and Dutch translations in print.
The River That Flows Uphill|
A Journey from the Big Bang
to the Big Brain
Copyright 1986 by William H. Calvin.
You may download this for personal reading but may not redistribute or archive without permission (exception: teachers should feel free to print out a chapter and photocopy it for students).
Man's future is even more obscure than his beginnings. To venture to sound either depth is to enter an unknown, perhaps unknowable, realm, but it is characteristic of man that he constantly attempts these journeys.
......LOREN EISELEY, 1967
It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.... All this world's heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool and laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars.
......H. G. WELLS, 1902
One thing that sure is different this morning, compared to previous mornings on the river -- there is no Lava Falls awaiting us downstream. There are still many rapids, but no 10<+> waterfalls. I think we've passed through most of our opportunities for natural selection to shape up the subspecies, Homo sapiens riverrunnerus L.
Ah, yes. I seem to remember denying last night that natural selection could do much to Homo sap anymore. Individual Homo saps, yes, but generate a new species, no. But why might there still be some possibilities for the biological evolution of humans? Were we, for example, to establish space colonies, and they became isolated, and were subjected to severe selection pressures, they might be small enough to evolve a different human species. Different, but who knows in what direction? But I can think of one way in which the juvenilization experiment of the last 34 million years of ape evolution could be continued.
No, I am not thinking of promoting marriage between the more baby-faced adults (I doubt that even the eugenics enthusiasts thought of that one). I am thinking of all the invisible selection that goes on in utero. If more than half of all pregnancies abort spontaneously, there is a lot of opportunity to influence the grounds for success. I doubt that all of the zygotes being discarded are defective. There may well be some cryptic selection that already goes on. But, given the much greater number of targets, prenatal selection pressures may well be as important as some of the postnatal ones on which we usually focus. And if unseen natural or sexual selection goes on in utero, can artificial selection be far behind? Suppose, for example, that proteins related to the genes that govern human developmental rate were expressed on the surface of the cells of the zygote/embryo, just as the immune system's genes are. Suppose that they affected the chances of successful implantation of the zygote in the wall of the uterus, or the chances of it being attacked by the mother's immune system, or the richness of the blood supply to the placenta, or some other such mechanism that might affect the usual poor survivability odds. Suppose that things were manipulated so that zygotes having the more juvenilized versions of those rate-governing proteins began having better luck than usual. This could shift the percentage of the more juvenilized individuals that survive to adulthood. They might grow up more slowly, might look more childlike as adults, and ageing might operate on a slower time scale as well. It would be the invertebrate-to-vertebrate, monkey-to-ape, and ape-to-human developmental trend, carried a little step further.
Whether they'd be smarter, or more musical, or better baseball pitchers is anybody's guess. It may be that juvenilization works only on the species level, not on the individual level -- that there is little correlation between the more baby-faced and the more musical-or-whatever individuals across the population. I don't know. Nonetheless, this simple example does illustrate how the mix of surviving embryos could be changed -- and thus the population characteristics of the species Homo sap -- once we understand the rate genes and the in utero survival process better. Genetic engineering could operate in similar ways on the developmental-rate genes, though we might wish as a society to prevent couples who could afford it from "buying" a guaranteed-bright child in the way they're already engineering the desired sex in their next offspring. Leaving it to chance, as genius probably works now, does have its attractions from the standpoint of avoiding further exacerbation of the differences between the poor and the well-off.
This increased juvenilization would not be a superhuman species, of course, but only a broadened range of variability within the current mix of humans. It would affect the biological head-start that some individuals brought to the even more important educational process. I'm not recommending such an experiment, only pointing out that human biological evolution may not be at an end -- and that we must recognize this possibility as we consider what kind of future society we want.
AUGMENTED HUMANS is the other way to go for superhumans. Rather than trying to evolve people with better memory performance, for example, we could simply try to augment the human memory with computer hardware. Use silicon rather than neurons, after finding some way of interfacing them. (Maybe by implanting a little computer behind the ear?)
No, any auxiliary brain will need to be bigger than that -- it'll need a big memory.
Augmented humans? Implanted silicon? Bev Williams, Alan's mother, interjected that I really must tell the others about the nudists that we encountered up at Havasu the day before yesterday. Some of the nudists have preempted the future.
I didn't mention this, but we hiked up Havasu to Beaver Falls after lunch. Besides the confusion engendered by the numerous false trails, even the main trail was sometimes hard to follow. There is one section where the brush is so thick, despite the daily bushwacking by hikers, that you cannot see someone approaching from the opposite direction on this one-lane street. And you can't hear them coming either, because of the roar of the creek nearby. You can literally bump into a hiker coming downhill as you are going uphill, both of you jumping back with surprise, nose to nose in the wilderness.
And therein lies the tale. Bev and I were hiking downhill in the afternoon, starting back to the boats, bushwacking our way along through that section of the trail. We heard someone approaching from the rear, a rattling of necklaces accompanied by thudding footsteps. It was Dawn, surely the most spectacular of the nudists to whom we'd talked up at the waterfall, attired in hiking shoes. Uniformly brown, Dawn is an Amazon of a woman, heavier than most men but of distinctly feminine proportions, her extensive mammary development accentuated by the obligatory gold chain necklace augmented by a few noisier ones. We stood aside, since Dawn apparently hiked downhill like a cannonball, clearing the tracks ahead with the sounds of her approach. She sweetly said, "Oh, hello again" and whizzed past.
We resumed bushwacking, wondering how she made the willows and tall grasses stand aside for her, how her skin survived them without the protection of clothing. We faintly heard another "Oh, hello" a moment later, and wondered whom she had encountered this time. Silence. No reply, no comment, just silence.
We continued. And then we met a group of hikers coming uphill. They were three teen-aged Boy Scouts, fresh-faced, with blond crewcuts, carrying regulation canteens and official Boy Scout knapsacks. As Bev subsequently noted, they had a thoroughly innocent and sheltered look.
We stood aside to let them through. I'm not sure they saw us. Their eyes were focused somewhere far off. They didn't speak. They were automatically putting one foot in front of the other. They passed in stunned silence.
When they were out of sight and earshot, Bev and I both stopped and broke down laughing, sitting down weakly on a nearby rock and exchanging "Did you see...?"
It was all too easy to imagine what had happened to them as they trudged uphill under the hot sun, this naked Amazonian apparition suddenly appearing out of the brush ahead of them at high speed, all but bowling them over backwards like a string of pins, saying "Oh, hello" in the dulcet tones of a society matron, and then zipping on like a passing tornado, vanishing into the brush downhill before they could do a double take and see that she was at least wearing regulation hiking boots.
In their place, given my physiologist's training, I would have surely suspected a hallucination, perhaps an accidental ingestion of the Jimson Weed that grows wild there. Or maybe impending heat exhaustion, suggesting that I should cool off in the creek, quick -- before getting trampled by the whole Follies chorus line. Scenes like that just don't happen in real life. I mean, a novelist couldn't insert something like those boys experienced into a story or you'd think it was too contrived, right? But Bev Williams is my witness, honest.
You may recall John DuBois noting earlier that human intelligence may someday come from a resident mix of biological and electronic circuitry, that in the future we may be "part Homo, part silicon." I've got news for him: The future is already here. A connoisseur of surgical scars told me later that a high percentage of the female nudists back at the waterfall had acquired double breast implants. Maybe the future is instead to make that silicon pad functional as well as decorative, a dual-purpose implant that simultaneously improves your thinking and your appearance. I should trademark it now: Brain in a Breast. I suppose a shoulder-pad version could be created for men? No, I've got it: Brain in a Biceps!
I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
......the biologist J. B. S. HALDANE, 1927.
WHAT MIGHT A SILICON IMPLANT do to augment a human brain, now that we've solved the problem of where to house it? Personally, I'd sure like an improved memory of everything to which I'd paid careful attention. Not only are biological memories notoriously in error on occasion, but they lose things too readily. I don't really want a verbatim transcript of all my experiences because, as with a videotape library, it might take too long to locate what you want in the midst of all the unrefined junk. But I read a lot, and I'm always marking passages, and I'd sure like an auxiliary memory to hold all those key passages so I wouldn't waste hours searching through my file cabinets and bookshelves, trying to find the rest of some half-forgotten passage. I'd also like my supplementary memory to be portable, so I could store things in it while reading on the airplane, so I could retrieve things while walking along the beach. I'd like it to have an easy data-entry system, perhaps via a throat microphone so that it would pick up subaudible movements of the vocal cords as I read aloud softly to myself. I'd like it to have some natural form of query and retrieval. Perhaps I'd subaudibly speak a key word or phrase, and, in a high speed scan, it would play back related sentence fragments from memory through an earphone until I commanded it to back up and repeat something at greater length. It would need a fair amount of programmed intelligence to know what was related and what wasn't, but it all seems possible.
I don't know about anyone else, but I'd find that consciousness-expanding. We naturally concoct "What-if" scenarios from remembered schemata, and this helper would allow me to load up my brain with more relevant information before thinking, allow me to check back against the facts, allow me to store subspoken thoughts if I wanted to pursue them later.
In addition to supplementary memory, one might progress to supplementary scenario construction. Maybe I could set the silicon to work finding the possible ways in which one of my scenarios could be rearranged, or have somewhat different schemata substituted. Later I could play back my electronic ego's favorites and see how I liked them. I spend a lot of time trying to get a sentence just right, rearranging its elements in various ways to see which sounds best, which is shortest, which has the right connotations. Maybe I could put my supplementary scenario-maker to work on the more trivial problems while I did something else, then came back to review the possibilities. Such a silicon sub-brain would need a big vocabulary and would need to know a number of grammatical rules, but it might be a help if I were willing to wade through the nonsense it also turned up.
This sounds like an awesome programming task. But if we ask how brains do similar tasks, we might find that, as in the case of a self-organizing system, a few simple rules might do wonders, that it was complicated only in its product.
I suppose that one might also start building "quality scores" into this silicon supplement, so that it gradually built up a sense of what its owner had rejected over the years, and so modified its ranking of candidate scenarios. And maybe when it wasn't otherwise busy, I'd just let it free-run and see what it came up with. It might, in the limited sphere of reacting to word-codeable information, start thinking somewhat as I do.
Now once I'd trained it, I could always make a copy of the current program in my silicon supplement and trade it to my friends in exchange for a copy of their current program. Thus, I could temporarily switch my program to think in the way some expert had eventually trained her supplementary silicon to do. I'd look at a set of facts like a physiologist with my natural brain, then I'd see what my silicon thought about the matter -- whether it had anything to add from its more reliable, but less complete, memory. Next I'd switch the silicon's program over so that it thought like the silicon supplement of an artist I admired, then like an experienced lawyer (I can just hear my father-in-law's program: "You'll notice that there are just two central issues that really control your decision in all that morass -- all those other things are just peripheral issues that'll fall into place once you focus on how those two affect each other"), and then like a beginning student who still confused certain ideas, sometimes creatively. I'd still draw my own conclusions, but I'd have augmented not only my memory but my consciousness and creativity.
If I ever conceive any original idea, it will be because I have been abnormally prone to confuse ideas... and have thus found remote analogies and relations which others have not considered! Others rarely make these confusions, and proceed by precise analysis.
......the physiologist KENNETH J. W. CRAIK, 1943.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is not particularly an endeavor of the brain researchers. It currently belongs to the computer scientists, and never comes across sounding like such a step-by-step improvement in a supplementary brain. Usually uninterested in neurobiology and evolutionary biology, which give one some ideas about how to build up from below with lots of parallel probabilistic elements and self-organizing system rules, the AI folk instead try to work from the top down using the kind of logical thinking required by computer programming. They try to get a machine to work through an Aristotelian series of logical propositions. It's a valid approach, one that is likely to result in some fascinating machines, but I doubt that these machines will interface very naturally with humans.
It is possible that a machine could be made that duplicated many human thought processes, did them faster and more accurately, was in some sense a superhuman without biology. As I mentioned, one of the challenges in tuning up such a thinking machine would be to adjust its "boredom" parameter, so that it didn't get stuck. So it occasionally got restless. Such computers might require vacations, even sabbatical leaves.
AI, and the computer sciences in general, are likely to provide brain researchers with some important analogies that will aid our research. Schemata are important in this business. Just because present-day digital computers are wired quite differently than biological brains doesn't mean that they may not have functional similarities. And we neurobiologists can use all the analogies that we can get, even if we do wind up discarding most of them as hopelessly inadequate. Search strategies for data banks, for example, help us to think about how the human brain might retrieve a series of related facts, even though the brain doesn't use reliable pigeonholes for information in the manner of computer memory (the brain overlays things, more like a hologram). Similarly, computer operating systems help us think about the executive functions of the brain, how we can modify our functional architecture when we switch from walking to talking to playing the piano.
There are real differences in goals between brain research and AI, not unlike the differences between science and technology. Computer "science" is out to extend the computer technology just as fast as it can push back the frontiers, seeing what it can do with each incremental advance in computer speed and memory size, just like the craftsmen who took us from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. The neurobiologists want to understand natural brains, try to establish just what makes humans tick. We usually don't think about applications at all; but if we do, we naturally think in terms of working around parts of a damaged brain. And so we approach augmenting the human brain in gradual stages, with neurologically natural interfaces, not imitating part of the brain's logic via some largely unrelated creation.
To speak of a computer "brain" thinking is, in terms of today's approaches, truly a misnomer; the AI people often aren't even trying to imitate human problem-solving, and they are rarely trying to build a working model based on the real brain's circuitry principles.
My own assumption is that the real brain's way of thinking is more like: 1) take each of the elements of the problem and free-associate on it to find related schemata; 2) take this augmented collection of schemata and try arranging them into various scenarios, creating lots of permutations and combinations; 3) discard the absurd ones and then take a closer look at the possible ones; 4) grade those for quality using your accumulated experience (which may or may not involve some logical reasoning); and then 5) either implement the best one or just forget about it. Except that real thinking isn't that orderly, but rather all mixed up.
This "variations on a theme" basis for creativity sounds a lot like biological evolution itself, where gene-shuffling and sex create a large family of varied combinations, spontaneous abortion discards the absurd ones, and then natural selection then grades the survivors according to how well each one's particular gene combination fits the environment in which it finds itself. It's not at all like the formal classification schemes and logical deductions on which philosophy (and now AI) focuses. Logic is important for humans, but it's probably only the icing on a shuffled cake. Our thinking is more of a back-and-forth fitting process, the way a carpenter hangs a door.
The brain of man is a device unlike any other on the planet, a device for the production of novelty, for drawing more from nature than meets the self-contained eye of a sunning lizard or a bird. The role of the brain is analogous in a distant way to the action of mutation in generating improbabilities in the organic realm.
......LOREN EISELEY, 1967
Really we create nothing. We merely plagiarize nature.
THE NOTION OF DESIGNING A COMPUTER that would get bored certainly stimulated conversation this morning. People had no trouble imagining the problems that could arise: the computer might act like a hyperactive child, always jumping from one thing to another with a short attention span (that does, Ben pointed out, sound just like time-sharing!). Or become set in its ways like a frontal lobe patient, who settles on one strategy and never changes it even when it no longer succeeds (rather like a computer trapped in a loop, its interrupts not working).
And a sabbatical for a computer? "When am I going to get a sabbatical?", complained Rosalie. "No one in my department has ever taken a sabbatical. They seem to think that anyone who wants to take off for a year is a freak of some sort, not carrying their share of the load." Medical schools can be rather different from the rest of a university.
"The people who really need sabbaticals are typists and factory workers," Jackie said. "Just imagine doing the same thing every day. It just isn't natural. Life was probably a lot more interesting in the good old days."
Such specialization probably started with agriculture, not industry or the office. There is likely nothing more boring than walking behind a plow all day, unless it's stooping over to pick cotton while getting your brain baked. If they ever existed, the good old days were probably back before this current interglacial period started, before all this specialization began. Everyone had to be versatile; even if they developed some expertise in sewing or rock-flaking or basket-weaving, they still did some gathering and small-game hunting on the side, wandering around the countryside and observing. We've been under some natural selection to take an interest in what's new, to tinker and fiddle around, to get a change of scenery every so often -- just as we've been under selection for protecting cuddly babies. To deny it is to breed unhappiness.
To be sentenced to doing one task all day is bad enough, but modern society tends to engineer things so that unchanging days become months and years. The headlong rush into specialization ignores our evolutionary past, ignores the fact that we take pleasure in exercising our versatility, in developing new skills at our own speed. And so we see many people working without pleasure, just in order to earn the money to be able to do something more interesting on the weekends. Jobs that can be done by a computer should be done by a computer, just as cotton-picking should be done by a machine.
One of the things that becomes possible, once 10 percent of the population can feed all the rest, is for everyone to work only half as much. While we now tend to identify with our work, many people are coming to identify more with their hobby or sport. And if they can work half of the time on such things of their own choosing, they'll be a lot happier still. As productivity increases, so does the opportunity for individuals to live less restricted lives, to enjoy some of the things that evolution has made pleasurable for us.
"I see that work-in-order-to-play business in my neighborhood too," observed Rosalie, "but if you look around, you'll see that the first thing that more productivity brings is not sabbaticals but more children. And then the parents are trapped into working day and night to keep supporting them. To be able to have lots of children -- that's the mark of success. Just look at Mexico or India or Egypt."
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cottonfields and sweatshops.
......the paleontologist STEPHEN JAY GOULD, 1980
Every prophet has to come from civilization, but every prophet has to go into the wilderness. He must have a strong impression of a complex society and all that it has to give, and then he must serve periods of isolation and meditation.
......WINSTON S. CHURCHILL, in a justification for sabbatical leave.
J.B. allows as how all boatmen get caught occasionally. "You've got to always be wary or one of those mean eddies will just reach out and grab your boat," he explains to us. "And they can be hard to spot, especially when you're paying attention to getting through the rapid just upstream. See how quiet and peaceful it looks in that little bay? Doesn't look mean, now does it? But it's easy to get in, and hard to get out. You just turn slowly around and around."
After about ten minutes of watching Ken's attempts to extract his boat, we see Alan climbing the rocks along the shore, his boat tied up downstream. Pretty soon he is standing atop the three-story-high cliff overlooking the eddy. He tries spotting the right place in the swirling currents to break out, points it out to Ken. But Ken has no better luck there, and is soon back in the middle again, slowly turning around and around, and catching his breath. Trapped by one of those pesky emergent properties.
Now we see Alan tossing something down to the boat. Two things. His sandals? Apparently so, Alan is poised to jump off the cliff. I hear Bev mutter anxiously under her breath, "Don't dive head-first!" But not to worry. Alan leaps, using a cautious cannonball landing several lengths away from the boat. He swims over and climbs aboard, with a practiced heave.
There are now two boatmen to row, seated abreast, pulling together. It's the Williams Brothers Duo. They get up some speed, but are carried back around into the bay. Again they try and, to cheers, they break out.
Time for lunch. That was hard work, watching.
How can I leave the river,LOOKING AHEAD and doing a little planning, preferably with the aid of alternative scenarios, is one of the ways that we've improved on the chimpanzees. It's not infallible, as our passage through Lava Falls demonstrated yesterday, but it's nearly always better than plunging blindly in and taking whatever is dished out. Actually, looking ahead is one of the problems with being a boatman: like professional athletes, they can't run the river forever. The back gives out. Unlike the park rangers to whom they are otherwise akin, they have no pension plan, have to find other work for half of the year. As each season on the river comes to an end, they look into the future, trying to figure out a sensible course of action. But it's hard to leave this special place.
what is the direction after downstream?
......the boatman LARRY STEVENS, 1981
As Rosalie points out at lunch, planning ahead is one of the things that the brain's frontal lobes do for us. Planning ahead for minutes, hours, even years. The famous Montreal neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield had a sister, Rosalie tells us, who was one of those cooks who could spend four hours preparing a five-course meal -- and have everything turn out just right. Nothing got cold or overcooked, because it was always ready to come off the burner or out of the oven just when it was needed. Now that is truly a precision-timing scenario.
But Penfield's sister began to lose this ability. Over the course of several years, the holiday family dinners began to distress her because she couldn't get properly organized as she had used to. For ordinary dinners she was still a good cook. Most physicians would not have picked up on such subtle clues. But Penfield's clinical instincts told him that she might have a frontal lobe tumor. She did. He operated. She recovered.
Her kind of planning ability is, of course, highly valued in our world. It's what keeps factories from grinding to a halt because of parts shortages, what gets buildings built, what makes scientific experiments produce believable answers, what keeps airlines on time, what gets farms planted during the right week of the year. Executives in particular, besides organizing their day-to-day activities, also must project into the future, see which course to take. The typical trade-off between price and quantity means, for example, that the executive planner must try out alternate sales projections, see if a lower price will stimulate sales enough for the savings on a quantity purchase of supplies to bring in more profits.
Not too much of this can be farmed out by a busy executive. If the executive has an assistant do all the calculations, the executive doesn't wind up with a real feeling for where the figures are soft -- what a projected savings in one place does to the costs or profits elsewhere in the budget. To see what a doubling in production will do to the budget, one has to increase the salary budget by one percentage, the supplies double but there are quantity savings, etc. The executive needs a feeling for how a budget reacts when pushed here or there, and that insight cannot be gained by a report from someone else. It's also hard to analyze someone else's budget proposal without working through it yourself in just such a way. To look into the future and assess risks and opportunities in any detailed way requires a lot of work.
And so no matter what printouts have been provided by the company's mainframe computer, many an executive has worked far into the night with a yellow pad of paper and an adding machine. My father, who was an insurance company executive, used to haul home an old mechanical calculator and work for an entire weekend on the budgets. This monster machine, the size of a portable sewing machine, was borrowed from his bookkeeping department. It had hundreds of keys to press; because they were necessarily small, they seemed designed for a child's fingers (adults used a pencil eraser to push them). The monster made great whirling sounds, noisily stepped its carriage along kerchunk-kerchunk-kerchunk like a great mechanical toy, was guaranteed to attract children from around the neighborhood if the windows were open.
When it's so much trouble, one doesn't construct too many different budgets; there is a real limit to how many scenarios one can reasonably try out. Then a major executive tool came along, a computer program called the spreadsheet. When the first one, Visicalc, was introduced at a computer show in 1979, its creator, Dan Bricklin, sat alone and largely unvisited off in a side room. The experienced computer people still thought in terms of either word-processing or data-processing, routine things that executives hired specialists to do for them. Few of the experts could see who would want a spreadsheet program; it wasn't a proper accounting package, wasn't word-processing, and wasn't adapted from a program for a big computer, etc. And besides, how many executives would do their own typing? Who would explain how to work it to the secretary?
They underestimated the executives. It took Visicalc nearly a year to start moving. And soon imitators started appearing, with improvements. Within several years, microcomputers were being sold in great quantities, just so vice-presidents could prepare their own spreadsheets more effectively. The spreadsheet software literally sold the hardware. And once the boss had his or her own desktop or portable computer, it became acceptable for everyone to have one. Before that, having a computer on your desk was a little like doing your own typing or becoming too closely identified as a data- or word-processing person rather than as a proper manager. And of course the boss' secretary had to have a compatible computer, so that the figures that the boss worked out on the airplane could be transferred from the portable computer to a letter or report. Once the executives' secretaries had computers, the other secretaries became less reluctant to give up their beloved typewriter for a microcomputer. The quantity savings from all the business purchases lowered the price enough so that even students began buying them for writing term papers; the versatile micro began to replace the ubiquitous portable typewriter in college dormitories. One piece of software, and its many imitators and successors, caused an avalanche of microcomputer sales.
The history of the microcomputer era can, of course, be written to emphasize other aspects of these versatile machines, but this little parable has a purpose: If few people before 1980 could see why anyone would want spreadsheet software, how successful can anyone be at predicting the future course of technology? Our ability to look even a few years into the technological future and predict what will happen is, alas, poor. Spreadsheets allow step-by-step budget projections based on known variables, but they -- and most peoples' imaginations -- cannot take into account the sidesteps of cultural evolution, where something developed for one purpose suddenly becomes useful for something else, tripping an avalanche for yet another reason. There's no substitute for imagination.
Doubtless [Greek water-clocks and sundials] were on occasion made to a serve [a] practical end, but on the whole their design and intention seems to have been the aesthetic or religious satisfaction derived from making a device to simulate the heavens.ONE OF THE THINGS that you discover stepping through the various budget scenarios with spreadsheets is that pennypinching on capital investment or on research and development can produce big losses. If you don't make enough capital investment, growth saturates your production capacity and, by the time you expand your plant several years later, your disappointed customers have gone elsewhere, you lose the economies of scale, and you may even find yourself on a negative growth curve that makes the situation worse and worse. Pilots are familiar with this phenomenon: if one flies too slowly, speeding up the engines may only make the plane go slower still. It's called the "back side of the power curve," and the recommended solution for it is to build up speed by diving (instead of revving up the engine further). These days, one doesn't have to crash an airplane in order to discover this paradox; a computer simulation shows many of the factors that affect it, lets one try out schemes for recovery on the model, etc. And so too with economic models, models of how pollution affects the weather, models of electrical power grids, and so forth.
......the science historian DEREK DE SOLLA PRICE, 1975
You may have seen in the grottoes and fountains which are in our royal gardens that the simple force with which water moves... is sufficient to put into motion various machines and even to set various instruments playing or to make them pronounce words according to the varied disposition of the tubes which convey the water.... [As they arrive, visitors] necessarily tread on certain tiles or plates, which are so disposed that if they approach a bathing Diana, they cause her to hide in the rosebushes, and if they try to follow her, they cause Neptune to come forward to meet them threatening them with his trident.
......the philosopher RENE DESCARTES, 1634
Rich Muller, the astrophysicist who shares the world's record for long-term predictions with the other discoverers of the 28-million year cycle of mass extinctions and meteor craters, also tells an interesting story about how small businesses fail even when seemingly successful. He says he finally figured out why so many good little restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area fail after a year or so of operation, just when they seem successful. The paradox intrigued him: these restaurants were full of satisfied customers one night and closed down the next by creditors. The restaurants do just fine, he says, as long as they continue to grow month after month; they get into trouble when growth flattens out. And that's because they've been subsidizing the customers by charging prices that are too low to cover their real costs -- the meals have cost more than they were charging, but they never realized it until growth slowed down. That happens because customers pay cash, but suppliers are paid the following month -- out of the following month's increased receipts. So, as long as there are additional customers each month, there is enough money to pay suppliers and all seems well. It's only when growth flattens out that it becomes apparent that the restaurant owner has been subsidizing the customers' food.
And that sounds familiar, because the same thing is likely happening on a larger scale too. Places like New York City already have too many people for the streets, sewers, and subways to handle, but the mayor and everyone else are madly promoting ever-bigger buildings, trying to attract big businesses to headquarter there, bringing even more people into the City. Because how are they going to pay last year's bills (all that needed maintenance on subways, for example) without new money? The businesses will move elsewhere if taxes are raised to reflect the true cost -- so New York City tries to grow faster and faster, just to keep paying its bills with new money. At least governments that print money with which to pay bills don't consume resources and pollute their environment in the process.
And our whole civilization may be subject to Muller's Restaurant Rule: If we had to pay the true costs of a ton of steel that was extracted from junkyards rather than a strip mine (as we surely shall have to do before long), our economy might well stagger. The costs of pollution and overpopulation are rapidly catching up with us, yet suggestions that we slow growth are met with about the same apprehension that the powers-that-be in New York City greet the notion of a moratorium on construction that would put a ceiling on the number of people working in Manhattan.
One hopes that spreadsheets will help fledgling restaurant owners to avoid subsidizing their customers with insufficient prices. But those kinds of projections work well only when costs can be realistically estimated. It's hard to know what a mining operation for iron ore really costs; lately we've been discovering what it does to the health of miners, the health of the people living downwind of a smelter, and the health of ecosystems exposed to their acid rain. The owners of the iron works haven't paid those costs in the past; they've left it to future taxpayers. It's going to be a good trick to pull off a transition to no population growth and full recycling of raw materials; we'll need lots of computer modeling to figure out how.
Making working models of systems is nothing new. In some sense, the Greeks may have started it more than 2,300 years ago with the creation of clockwork machines that simulated the heavens. It may be that waterclocks had little to do with telling time; rather, the motivation for their construction may have been to simulate the workings of the gods by making a model moon and planets wander through a model field of stars on the gods' own schedule.
Automata have long been a big thing; whether for prediction or just for show, they have stimulated the thinking of many people. Plato may have seen a machine that simulated the heavens; certainly by Roman times the Agora of Athens had a monumental waterclock, the Tower of Winds, whose ticks were drips of water and which featured a working model of the moon and planets wandering through the backdrop of fixed stars. Descartes' notion of a mind separate from the body may stem from his contemplation of the Royal Gardens automata where cleverly utilized streams of water made the statues move, play musical instruments, and speak words. Descartes realized that the nerves might just be like pipes carrying water pressure to piston-like muscles, the whole thing orchestrated from the nervous system. Today we know that the signals are not hydraulic but electrical, that sliding filaments in the muscles make them contract, and that a separate mind isn't necessary -- yet automata still stimulate our thinking about the higher functions of the brain.
Clever computer simulations of damaged nerves have suggested ways to work around some problems caused by disease or injury. Simulations of whole mosaics of nerve cells have, just like spreadsheets, given neurobiologists a sense of the possible, stimulated them to design experiments to see which scheme the brain actually utilizes. I got started doing this back in 1959, in my days as a physics undergraduate, making a model of the human retina based on the findings of Keffer Hartline and his followers. The only computer available at the time was an IBM 650, which even lacked a core memory. It had to get each instruction, one by one, from the equivalent of a disk drive (it was really a large revolving cylinder and it had an emergency shutoff switch in case -- so the story went -- the IBM serviceman got his necktie entangled in it). To get the amount of running time I needed, I came into the computer center (which was housed in an old astronomical observatory) at midnight and worked until dawn, no one else needing the computer at those hours. I didn't even have the company of astronomers, those traditional night-owls, as the observatory was a bit obsolete for serious astronomy.
I promptly learned that the activity of retinal cells underwent wild oscillations unless the strengths of their interconnections were adjusted just right. And that there was a lot of missing information, forcing me to simply make guesses about how a component worked. Trying to figure out how to nail down such information from a real nerve cell is what led me into the experimental side of neurobiology for the next 20 years (I'm now back to making models again).
Computer network models have become much more sophisticated since those days. One of their best uses is to show us how a system can misbehave -- in advance. When you've got a lot of actual data about a real system, you can sometimes make a quite detailed working model of it; this is quickly becoming the case with the weather. The atmosphere is represented by the computer-program equivalent of a giant three-dimensional stack of little cubes exchanging numbers representing wind, temperature, and moisture with their immediate neighbors according to the laws of physics. Operating on short time scales, one gets a weather forecast for the next week. Bigger models can show how major climate disturbances work, such as if ice sheets cover the northern latitudes to create the equivalent of mountain ranges that deflect jetstreams. And how a nuclear war could be devastating to the plants and animals all over the earth via the sudden disruption it would cause in climate.
The computer simulations of hawks-and-doves that the behavioral biologists have been running show a number of important properties about competing species in nature. Coexistence is possible if neither species can be wildly successful in matters reproductive. With exponential growth rates, one species can eventually win and displace the other. Should still another species get started that is sufficiently superior, however, it can eventually take over.
That's what we've always assumed about evolution, ever since Darwin. But there is a sobering note to the computer results: if a species has a hyperbolic growth rate, it can kill off all competition permanently.
Are there any species around with such threatening growth patterns? Alas. Since agriculture began, humans have had a hyperbolic growth rate, the time needed to double the population getting shorter and shorter. And we're coming to compete with many other species for food and space, causing animal species to go extinct at an alarming rate.
In a spatially limited environment, growth leads to saturation. There is a maximum limit for the total population. Individual subgroups, however, will display highly differentiated behavior in accordance with the particular law of growth affecting them:
1. coexistence (with linear growth or mutual stabilization)
2. competition and selection (with exponential growth)
3. once-and-for-all decision (with hyperbolic growth)
[Laws of growth between competing species sharing resources]:
1. Linear growth [creation rate is constant] always leads to coexistence and to population densities that are, on the average, determined by the ratio of the rates of formation and decomposition. ["coexistence" scenario]
2. Exponential [growth rate proportional to quantity currently present] and hyperbolic [faster-than-exponential, when doubling time progressively shortens in the manner of the human population] growth result in a clear selection of one species unless stabilizing interactions among different species enforce their coexistence. ["competition and selection" scenario]
3. In the case of exponential growth, "qualified" competitors (i.e., mutants with a clearly defined selective advantage) can establish themselves at any time. In hyperbolic growth this is practically impossible once a species has qualified and established itself ["once-and-for-all selection" scenario]
4. Rules 2 and 3 apply consistently only if there are no functional links between competitors. Links of this kind can lead to mutual stabilization of the partners involved or to a stiffening of competition between them or even to a total extinction of them all.
......MANFRED EIGEN and RUTHILD WINKLER, Laws of the Game, 1976.
EMERGENT PROPERTIES have certainly been accumulating during this trip. Compounded things really are much more than just the sum of their parts. Together with such evolutionary rules as punctuated equilibrium, they give one a much better picture of how life has evolved. But even with good imagination, predicting the future path of evolution can be problematic because of all the sidesteps and the occasional avalanches that follow them.
For human evolution, there is now the possibility that many of our more prized mental abilities, the ones that make us different from the apes, were initially sidesteps. Rather than primarily arising through a process of natural selection for planning ability, our higher consciousness may be a free gift whose powers we are still trying to fathom. Music certainly looks like a gift, its depths being so unlikely to have evolved by natural selection.
We're certainly more flexible than the remaining apes, able to shoehorn ourselves into living in all sorts of conditions that would have terrified our more distant ancestors (such as New York apartments and subways). They would have probably scorned our confined existence in buildings, most of us working at endlessly repetitive jobs, in just about the same way that we pity a chimpanzee inhumanely confined to a small zoo cage.
Emergent properties, such as back-eddies, can reach out and grab the unwary, trap them in a journey that goes nowhere. As the fieldhands and cycle-of-poverty people have been trapped, so humanity as a whole may be trapped by ecological snares. If we fail to put the brakes on population and pollution, we all may be trapped in one of the unhappy backwaters of the universe.
Or emergents can open up new vistas, as if they were a bonus for excellence in evolution. But we'll still bring pretty much the same biological makeup to whatever cultural setting we inhabit. That biology is mammalian, primate, ape, perhaps aquatic, African, certainly ice age. Our fears and pleasures will, however they may be refined by how we happen to grow up, still remain pretty much those that we have inherited from our biological background. Most of us will still like cuddly babies, campfires, foot races, natural settings, shellfish, meat, and fruit. We'll still like to sharpen our skills, to tinker around, to compare observations with others, to play the mating games that distinguish us from the apes. We have been selected to take pleasure in being interested in things, tinkering around with objects, and surely that will remain.
Some of those pleasures need to be restrained, rationed for the sake of our children's future. Just as we have limited some of our violent side with a system of laws, just as we have brought out our better side by developing a cultural system of ethics, so we may have to restrain some of our pleasures. Such as surrounding ourselves with big families. Such as indulging our taste for meat every day (the more systematic clearing of rain forests is, alas, for the purpose of growing grass to aid the export of cheap frozen meat -- the conversion of Brazilian rain forest into junk food has been called the "hamburgerization of the Amazon"). And, if we want our children to be able to have an experience like our last two weeks away from civilization, we'll have to set aside from encroachment -- firmly, with absolutely no exploitation or development even in bad economic times -- many such natural areas. If the world keeps changing at as dizzying a pace as it is now, our children are occasionally going to want to stop and get off that artificial world, temporarily return to a more natural state to think things through, get some perspective, feel their roots. They'll need places such as this even more than we do.
SHADE IS SCARCE along this section of the river in the afternoon. The boatmen have a favorite stopping place on the left bank, where a high rock outcropping provides a bit of shade. And a platform from which to jump into a protected section of the river. The campsite down at Mile 220 is sunny at this hour; if we arrived there too early, we'd just be hot. The shade's here, so we stay here. Good planning is very useful in a desert. The desert has a way of being unkind to those who don't think ahead in matters relating to water and sunlight. At least the heat isn't as much of a problem for us as it is for the smaller desert animals -- our large size slows down the temperature rise in our bodies.
One of the major lessons of biology is that size matters. We cannot simply double the size of something without considering the consequences, such as halving the rate at which it will gain or lose heat, and thus change temperature. And while surface-to-volume ratios have been obvious to architects and engineers for a long time, we may have some other limitations that are not so obvious. Can we further enlarge our cities without major breakdowns in the social fabric? Will human behaviors in matters reproductive -- suited by evolution to the fluctuating climates of the ice ages and a scattered population of several million hunter-gatherers -- remain safe when the world population reaches 5,000-million people?
What happens to human social behaviors, evolved in small bands of perhaps 25 people and their relatives among a larger tribe of perhaps 20 such bands (think of a small town, population 500), when a person has to cope daily with an impersonal society of strangers? When a person has to specialize in a manner that eliminates the pleasures of versatility and the great outdoors? It may be "economic sense" to build bigger and bigger skyscrapers and pack in people tighter and tighter, but is it humane? Temporarily tolerable, perhaps, but is that the sort of society we want, or are we simply abdicating decisions and going with the flow? Economic sense isn't everything.
There are consequences to not planning -- people will die in famines if the population outstrips what food can be delivered to them in the bad years. People will die when resources are exhausted, unless we get back into balance with what nature produces. Even those who say that "it's their problem" must realize that hungry people topple governments, fail to pay back money owed and so topple international monetary systems, organize to invade neighbors with less densely packed land, and act in irrational, frustrated, irresponsible ways (including terrorism). Like the cute lion cubs who die when their parents stop feeding them, a large number of babies may be "natural" but it certainly isn't humane -- and in the case of civilization, overpopulation and the destruction of ecological systems spell dangerous worldwide instabilities, not merely "localized failures."
We can learn to appreciate such things through science. We can project known growth processes (whether of population, pollution, or power supplies) into the future with working models, we can advise on the bad courses and identify good options (though science itself often cannot identify the appropriate values to emphasize). But none of that will change what happens unless the information is widely read -- unless it creates an urgency to act to save a habitable world for our children. I'm afraid they're going to think that the twentieth century was holding one big irresponsible party, consuming everything as if there were no tomorrow. Leaving them the hangover and ruined land rather than their proper inheritance. As mindless as a plaque of locusts.
After I be dead, others will follow. If people be killing killing, there will be no more buffalo, no rhino. If they be cutting cutting, there will be no more trees, no oxygen, no rain. Like a desert. What will my daughters think? They will come and there will be nothing. Our father was stupid, they will say.
.......RENATAS, a park ranger in Tanzania, 1985
It is true that mankind is in a more dangerous situation than ever before. But science has provided our culture with the tools to escape, at least potentially, the decline to which all previous high cultures have fallen victim. This is true for the first time in the history of the world.
......the ethologist KONRAD LORENZ, 1973.
Mile 216 from Leonard Thurman's Grand Canyon River Running web pages.
"But how do you know without looking?", Marsha asks suspiciously.
"I'd have noticed if he wasn't there anymore," is Mike's sage reply.
"And how do you know it isn't a she?", challenges Marsha.
"Sexual dimorphism is very prominent in gorillas," smiles Mike.
Suddenly Marsha sees the gorilla and runs off to tell Rosalie. And so I look more seriously myself. There are indeed five moving rocks, three of them clustered together. But a gorilla?
Ahah! The hilltop profile looks like the left rear profile of a big male gorilla. One sees the hump atop the head that anchors the big jaw-closing muscles that he uses to grind up the leafy plants of his dull diet. And the zygomatic arch coming around front below the temple, which ends in the big facial bone below the eye. Standing by the boats, I see the gorilla but complain that the hump on top is too exaggerated, even for a big silverback male. Mike says it's more persuasive when viewed from the middle of the camp. I walk back up to the tents to look, and he's right. A proper male gorilla, looking upriver into the gorge from which we emerged earlier. A giant sentinel.
I wave over Rosalie and Marsha, who also admire the improved view. We wonder what the Anasazi called it, not having a gorilla schema stored in their heads. Come to think of it, Major Powell and crew probably had never seen a gorilla either. Even in the nineteenth-century scientific journals, the description of the apes was somewhat confused; fairly rare even then, they were described later than most other primates. And they're even more rare now, their living space disappearing rapidly.
As we watch through binoculars, the three bighorns that were clustered disappear one after another. They just wander over the top of the ridgeline, literally dropping out of sight. Show's over.
Thoroughly relaxed, we wander down to the kitchen to see what's for dinner, now that the shadows are lengthening. Over the two weeks of our journey, the menu has gradually shifted from fresh to frozen to canned entrees.
Oh, no! As I should have suspected, for this last dinner we are actually having clams linguine. So help me, there is actually a big restaurant-sized can of the sauce propped atop the kitchen table, with its boldface label proclaiming "CLAMS LINGUINE" for all to see.
The boatmen just didn't say when we would enjoy the delicacy. No one took up J.B. on his bet (days ago, he offered cynics four-to-one odds that we'd have clams linguine for dinner). But the boatmen cheat, spreading the clam sauce over plain old spaghetti. Though I wouldn't be surprised if J.B. carries along a small package of real linguine, just in case he might lose a bet. Beware of making bets with boatmen!
Those who will not reasonSITTING AROUND THE CAMPFIRE is a reassuring old habit, one of those roots through which we evoke our pre-human days. Since collecting driftwood in the Canyon is prohibited in the summer, we had to make do with the charcoal left over from baking the cake for dessert, augmented by some of the flammable trash. This being our last night on the river, we're using up the rest of the charcoal supply that the boats have carried. Even a water-damaged paperback book fallen into a dozen pieces has been contributed to the fire. But the atmosphere feels right; it's hard for a campfire to feel ersatz. It's friendly, it focuses your attention.
Perish in the act;
Those who will not act
Perish for that reason.
......W. H. AUDEN (1907-1973)
"I'll bet," Rosalie said, "that most of you are sitting there thinking that preventing overpopulation and the rain forest scenario will surely be a matter of ecological education finally reaching the underdeveloped countries. That surely the prevention of the nuclear-winter scenario will be a matter of educating others about how dangerous it is."
"Maybe you added an afterthought," she continued, "hoping there's enough time to spare. You know -- that the earth will be able to absorb the abuse for the time it takes to correct the situation through awareness."
She looked around for confirmation, her face etched by the flickering light of the campfire. "Or if you didn't think that, you probably thought that -- just like the rationalizations of an addicted smoker -- surely the scientific data isn't all in yet, that maybe-hopefully-somehow," she slowly drew out the word, "somehow all these dire predictions will turn out to be mistaken. Or maybe you hoped that science would invent some patch-up job in the meantime, to save us. Am I right?"
There were some embarrassed smiles this time, people distractedly drawing in the sand and nodding assent.
"Well, let me tell you a story. To comprehend such ecological danger places you and me in a very special situation. It sticks us with the responsibility to do something about it, just as the citizen happening upon a house fire has the unavoidable responsibility of warning the occupants and then calling the fire department. No matter what important errand he's involved with at the time."
"But special knowledge gives you and me an additional special responsibility that goes well beyond merely spreading the word about a fire. The Greeks said it very well, directed at the primary possessors of specialized knowledge of their day." She smiled. "I even memorized the ancient dictum for my medical school graduation ceremony:
'Life is short, the Art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult. The physician must be ready, not only to do his duty himself, but also to secure the co-operation of the patient, of the attendants and of externals.'
"That's Hippocrates. But the basic bind hasn't changed in the last 2,500 years for situations in which knowledge is fragmentary and time is short. The nature of the patient has just enlarged to include the whole human race. And maybe more."
After that sank in, she continued. "It says that even though the data are incomplete, you have to act -- opportunity is fleeting, judgment always difficult."
"And the last part of that Hippocratic quote pointedly reminds you of one of the most difficult nonscientific aspects of the problem. You've got to be able to persuade others to do things that are in the best interests of the patient, even though they lack your special knowledge of why those things must be done -- 'secure the cooperation' says you've also got to stage-manage the whole damn treatment just as surely as if it were a Greek drama."
She paused and then repeated, "It isn't enough to act as a specialist, but you've got to play stage manager too."
Rosalie leaned forward and looked around at us, her face again brightened by its closeness to the campfire. "Don't let those words 'physician' and 'patient' fool you -- a physician and a scientist and a philosopher were much the same back then, all wrapped up in one person. So that Greek admonition out of the past applies to us all, to all educated persons, not just today's specialized doc who is licensed to gamble one-on-one with another person's life. And with the whole human race -- the whole Earth -- being the patient in this case, we're not just talking physicians here, we're talking about everyone who understands the problem, even a little. Every one of you understands more ecology today than Greek philosopher-physicians understood about physiology back then. And they still had to act."
"Life is still pretty short. Experience still isn't a reliable guide. The time window in which you have an opportunity to act effectively is certainly fleeting. Judgment's still difficult -- and yet you've still got to act and not postpone. You can't just do your duty yourself, in the sense of calling attention to the situation and educating the next generation when you get the opportunity. Not everyone, certainly not in the hungry developing countries, can afford to study the subject long enough to gain your understanding of the interdependencies of ecology. Awareness isn't going to solve this problem. You've got to go out and secure the cooperation of the patient and stage-manage the situation."
She counted on her fingers. "It is imperative that countries act quickly -- One, to stop the population growth that can cancel out all our gains and waste the resources that a future generation will need for recovery. Two, to stop cutting down the tropical forests and causing the wholesale extinction of other species. Three, to force the superpowers to stop their macho nuclear posturings that could trigger a living nightmare. Four, to see that no temporarily insane nation of the future acquires the power to endanger humanity. Five, to recognize that us-and-them won't do anymore, that we're all in this together, all one people."
"We've got to stage-manage it all. And it's not just ecologists or physicians. If the people who half-understand the situation don't get started, we're lost."
THE BIG DIPPER has now moved down a quarter-turn around the North Star since sunset. Six hours by my celestial clock. That makes it the middle of the night; morning will come in several hours. Sleep does not come easily. Everyone within earshot seems to be tossing and turning and sitting up and lying down.
That was some ancient pea planted under our mattresses. By starlight, I've seen two people pacing the beach, one upstream and another downstream. The moon will rise soon and the Milky Way will fade. At least we don't have to save the universe from itself, only our Earth.
We've been soothed too long by the folklore of wishful thinking. But there are no guarantees. Even evolution did not fit us to our present world. We're winging it. We're probably alone, and we'd better start looking after ourselves.
We may not be suited to the task, but here we are. We need to engineer a new emergent property that converts hunter-gatherer mentalities into responsible world citizens with ever-expanding niches, and to do it in short order. Improbable? So what -- the whole world's improbable. Yet it exists. And we'd like to see it stay in business.
True art... clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets towards the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns. It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons. It designs visions worthy of trying to make fact. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes. It does not make hope contingent on acceptance of some religious theory. It strikes like lightning, or is lightning; whichever.
.......the novelist JOHN GARDNER (1933-1982)