Monday, August 20, 2012


Koloa stepped out from the trees.  The plaza before her was lighted by dozens of flickering torches.  Several small groups of people stood engaged in conversation in the late summer air, while a few individuals and couples ambled leisurely away towards darkened streets beyond.  She walked briskly across the plaza and headed for the wide stairs to her left.  Torchlight glistened off her long, dark pony tail, and several people glanced casually as she passed them.  At the base of the stairs she paused and stared for a moment at the facing wall of the fortress.  Torchlight created a flickering effect on the wall’s surface.  She blinked, and, in her mind’s eye saw a mound of broken rubble.  One day, she mused, these walls will be no more.

Nisha reached down and lifted the steak from where it had landed in the dirt, ignoring Paul’s apology.  He whacked it a couple of times against the side of his pants, and brought it to his mouth.  Keeping his eyes on Paul, Nisha pulled off a mouthful of the meat, chewed it noisily, and swallowed.

“That’s the problem with your kind,” he said in an even voice before pulling off his next bite.  He chewed, swallowed again.  “You base your lives on fear.  You think that protection from germs is going to make you live longer.  You take only the safe risks.”

He brought his gaze to the fire, and continued to chew the meat from the bone.

Paul, too, continued to eat.  He had a camping plate, fork and knife, and he cut the steak into bite-size pieces.  Flustered, he couldn’t decide what to say in response to Nisha’s criticism. 

Nisha finished off his steak first, pulling the last bits of meat from the bone with his teeth.  Then he threw his bone into the fire.

Nisha wiped his hands on his pants legs.  Then he stood, keeping his gaze fixed on the fire, where the bone crackled and smoked.

“Know this, Paul.  All risks are the same.  All lives are the same.”

He turned away from the campfire and climbed into his tent, leaving Paul to finish his meal alone.

When Andy got home he kicked off his shoes and padded into the kitchen.  He knew the cupboards were bare, so he opened the door to the broom closet.  Aside from two brooms, a sponge mop and a dustpan, the floor of the closet was cluttered with an array of cleansers in various bottles and jars.  It was dark in there.

Andy got down on one knee and reached inside with his right hand.  It should still be there.  Finally, his fingers made contact with the old jar in the back right corner.  He jiggled it.  It was filled with money.

Romina announced to the assembled crowd, “Next in our Open Mic, Tom will speak to us.”

Tom looked out at the faces.  “We often forget that we share—”

“—MIC CHECK!” somebody called out.  Tom took a breath.  He would have to raise his voice over the din of the traffic driving past the park.  He started over with greater vigor.

“We often forget that we share this world with a zillion other species. It's not just about the welfare of humans. We're on our way to 9 billion individuals, and it's the well-being of the biosphere that is at stake.”

He stopped and swept his arm about him, indicating the trees in the park.

“Nature speaks, but not in a human voice. We must learn nature's language and speak for nature. This goes far beyond appreciating nature's beauty. It's science and ecology, folks. It's limits to growth. It's computer models to anticipate the future effects of what we've been doing for the last 100 years.

“Ultimately, it's knowing ourselves, not just as ‘cultured humans’, but as a pieces of a complex, coexisting wholeness.”

Concluding, he shook his head sadly, then remembered to raise his volume.  “People aren't dumb. They just don't know. Learn now, or learn later.”

Floyd’s power pack was half-full of charge.  Using a thought-command he diverted all of the power to the toroidal energy lifters and leaned forward slightly.  Immediately he felt the familiar rush of air against his face as he skimmed along at 30 meters per second, half a meter off the ground.  He breathed a sigh of relief.  He would be back in the city in less than a quarter of an hour.

Butterfly fluttered among the garden plants.  Her antennae sought a particular chemical marker, and presently the signal was detected.  Since she had two antennae, she could locate the source by angling her body back and forth and tracing out a complicated three-dimensional path through the air.  Her muscles responded automatically to the different strengths of the chemical signal reported by each antenna.  Now she was headed straight toward it.  Only by landing would she know for sure.

She braked with her wings, and the stickers at the ends of her six legs wrapped around the twig-like branch.  She unfurled her proboscis and whipped it through the leafy tendrils.  Now she was sure.  Milkweed.

Her body sagged with exhaustion.  Her abdomen was full with semen.  Very soon she would begin to deposit her eggs.  Then would come her final sleep…

Friday, August 3, 2012

Nature’s Brains, Part 6

July 8, 2012
Bob Fiske

Nature’s Brains, Part 6

(Note: I invite you to read Part 5 before you dive into this part.)

It’s time to wrap this up.  Have I convinced you that brains are obsolete?  Probably not.  That’s OK, because I am not perfectly convinced, either.  However, I do suspect that they may be.

Let’s reexamine the idea of species survival.  Many people—including some biologists—equate survival with competition.  In layperson’s lingo survival amounts to “survival of the fittest”.  Even those trained in genetics might say that a unique gene (or complex of genes) confers a “survival advantage”, meaning that individuals endowed with this advantage will be more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation than individuals lacking the genetic trait(s).

What this amounts to is that more competitive individuals or species, because of “superior adaptability” will out-reproduce other individuals/species in the race to acquire resources, meet physical needs and produce offspring that also produce offspring.  Understood this way, human beings would be judged as the most competitive species, and largely due to the human brain.

If I stopped there, then you would miss the other crucial half of the picture.  The “competitive half-picture” conveys the image of nature as a producer of Olympic gold medalists that can beat out other contenders.  However, that is a simple human notion.  Nature has been in this business too long to aim so low.

The truth is, I believe, that nature’s brilliance can be summed up in a simple word: harmony.

While it is true that the natural world does create species rivalries, it is of much greater significance that species coexist.  It’s not hard to see.  Walking in the neighborhood in the summer I notice that every bush is laced with spider webs.  The plants don’t simply tolerate these invaders, they make them a comfortable home.

Go into any forest.  You are standing within a well-balanced system in which plants, animals, insects, worms and fungi each contribute in species-unique ways to the overall health of the biome.  By the way, one reference uses another interesting word: communities.  Biomes are notable as communities hosting a diversity of species.

Even in extremes of inter-species competition, nature manages to maintain harmony.  For example, swarms of locusts (immense concentrations of juvenile grasshoppers) can consume plant life rapidly in areas of thousands of square kilometers.  In their wake locust swarms leave no living thing.  This appears to be extreme competition, but it is more than that.  Grasshopper populations die off, and plant communities grow anew.  Nature restores balance by means of a time-based cycle.

The human brain appears to play by its own rules.  As a competitor it is unsurpassed.  The problem is that, in achieving its competitive advantage, the human brain has brushed aside nature’s tendencies to create coexistence.  Competition may be hard, and Homo sapiens may be the winner.  But one thing is certain: winning is easy when measured against nature’s ability to weave communities that maintain harmony among species.

Some people do understand this.  Farmers specializing in permaculture strive to create interactive plant, animal and insect communities that produce food, retain water, create shade and sun, grow flowers and constrain pests.  Their goal is to grow food in the manner that nature grows forests, with multiple species coexisting.  The knowledge of how to emulate nature exists.  It is not mainstream knowledge, but it exists.

That knowledge is not enough.  The human brain has painted itself into a corner because we are well on our way to nine billion individuals.  Most species have constraints that keep their populations in check.  Prey have predators, and predators have a limited supply of prey.  They are subject to limitations in territory or key resources.  The human brain, though, has invented methods to defeat every limitation that governs unbridled growth in other species.  Our population goes in one direction only: up.

In the end, I suspect that nature’s way will ultimately triumph.  The human brain is on course to exhaust every last resource it can.  In doing so, it will end the supremacy of the human species.  It will also take down many, many species by disrupting the finely tuned harmony that nature has woven.  Because of the human brain’s competitive and simplistic behavior, the world will undergo yet another massive extinction event.

Like the crops that were devastated by locusts, nature will re-emerge.  It will continue its process of creating species that both compete and coexist in balanced communities.  And it will never again produce a species with an over-competitive, non-harmonizing brain like the one encased in the skulls of Homo sapiens.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Nature’s Brains, Part 5

July 8, 2012
Bob Fiske

Nature’s Brains, Part 5

(Note: I invite you to read Part 4 before you dive into this part.)

If you have followed this essay so far, you might have thought I was doing a term paper for a biology class.  You could be excused, for you did not know the question that motivated it.  But it’s not a term paper, it’s an editorial.  You might say this is a bio-political opinion piece.

Now here is where I’m going to look pretty dumb.  An editorial author is supposed to have a single, solid opinion.  I don’t.  I haven’t made up my mind yet.  It’s because of the question I asked.

A question popped into my mind as I “observed” the inner workings of the feeding sparrow’s marvelous little brain, as I recognized that brains are useful and that nature has kept improving their designs, that, in the human brain we see both the splendor and drawbacks of advanced brain design, and that, from nature’s point of view, the drawbacks are a supremely serious problem.

And this question entered my mind.  “Are brains obsolete?”  Is nature done experimenting with brains?  That’s the question.

Here, in a nutshell, is my ambivalence on the issue.  The human brain has supplanted nature.  Or: the human brain appears to think and act like it has replaced nature.  Or: perhaps the human brain will, in fact, displace nature in determining the future of all life on the planet.  Or: probably not, nature will win and will phase out brains.

One might reply, “Phase out brains?  It could never happen!”  Want to bet?  We have evidence of other design solutions that were edited out of nature’s animal catalogue.  For instance, the dinosaurs.  Although dinosaur fossils have been found spanning a variety of sizes, for this discussion we want to focus on the most obvious group, the giants whose body masses were on the order of several metric tons.  They are no more.  That design was phased out.

Dinosaurs had a nice, long reign of over an eighth of a billion years.  Another grand animal design is represented by the trilobite group that inhabited earth’s early oceans for over a quarter of a billion years.  They, too, are no more.  So, it is possible that successful animal designs can enjoy popularity and still end up as throwaways in the genetic scrap heap.

OK, let’s back up a step.  Is nature a thing that is capable of making decisions?  Can nature phase out brains?  I want to be clear: talking about nature as if it is an entity that deliberately chooses which species to include or omit in a catalogue is merely a verbal shorthand.  While that shorthand makes it possible to express sentences using fewer words, I would not want you to become confused by it.

Therefore, to clear up any misunderstanding, I will place a small definition on the table.  Nature is a system of rules for structuring matter.  It turns out that this rule-base is huge, as is the number and type of forms it is capable of producing.  Nature does not think, nor does it plan.  And yet, as psychiatrist Allen Wheelis poetically argued, nature appears to “progress”.  Using verbal shorthand once again, I would say that it is possible to see in nature’s progress innumerable experiments in which forms have been tried out.

Certainly, in the arena of life, the “trying out” of forms (living designs, genotype/phenotype combinations) has a dynamic nature.  By dynamic, I mean that experiments can be performed using biological building blocks, and when the experiment is over those bio-molecules can be recycled into other organisms.  It’s like having a whiteboard or a computer hard drive that can be written and rewritten upon many, many times.

So, simply because the human brain is the most adept brain to be written onto nature’s slate is no guarantee of anything.  That genetic information can be wiped clean, and the raw materials can be assembled to make other designs.