Review: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

I do love a good popular science book. I spent many a teenage year devouring books about the bizarro world of quantum physics and the magical future of nanotechnology, always fifteen years away with its promises of wondrous microscopic self-replicating devices and a planet eaten by grey goo. Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt, and Remember reminds me very much of those books.

The premise is simple: what should we learn from past mass extinctions to help prepare us for the next? What do we need to know, as a species, to ensure the descendants of humans are still around (in some sense) in a million years?

To editorialise for a moment, it seems to me the status quo won’t get us further than another century or two. For as long as economics trumps all — growth at all cost, drill, dig, mine, chop — the planet suffers, grey goo or not. And as someone said, there is no planet B. We need to change our ways, sooner or later, or we’ll perish as a species and leave our world to whichever organism is adaptable enough to fill the niche. Life finds a way, as someone else said mumbled while gesticulating.

Traditionally cockroaches are next in line, but I’d put my money on birds making a bid for a return to the good old days — crows are a lot more intelligent than they look. Perhaps birds and cats will settle their differences and divide the planet between them, waging war on the fish. The insects will adopt a neutral position, like a segmented Switzerland making decisions through emergent behaviour/referenda. The plants will just sit there and tut, as ever, and the bacteria will still be the ones actually in charge.

Anyway.

If you’re unfamiliar with the many hilariously close calls Earth has had with sterility since the solar system was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, Newitz’s book will be an eye-opener. She gives us a great potted history, starting with the oxygen apocalypse early life brought upon the planet. About 2.5 billion years ago, mats of algae — cyanobacteria, the first life to photosynthesise — farted out oxygen in such quantities they converted the planet to an oxygen-rich atmosphere, killing off all life that couldn’t adapt quickly enough. (They remind me of someone.) Moving on through snowball earth and other ice ages, meteorite impacts, megavolcanoes, and of course the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs — if it was an asteroid — you get a real and unnerving sense that we’re incredibly lucky to have made it this far, and the luck is certainly going to run out. We just don’t know when.

Then Newitz comes closer to home: migrations out of Africa by our recent ancestors. Seemingly successful, since there are now over seven billion of us. But these billions descend from a group of a few tens of thousands. Our “effective population size”, as geneticists call it, is tiny, and hints at a bottleneck we don’t yet fully understand. From there it’s a dash through Neanderthals to the medieval Black Death and modern disasters such as the Potato Famine in Ireland and the Spanish Flu outbreak at the end of World War One. Plus present-day humanity’s amazing ability to stomp on itself, every living thing it encounters, and the climate — the book talks about whether or not we’re currently undergoing a mass extinction, one caused by ourselves.

The rest of the book — over half — shows us what we can learn from those near-death experiences and how we can apply that knowledge. Unsurprisingly there’s a lot about scattering, adapting and remembering, and as in the first sections much history is mixed in with the science. For example, the chapter Using Math to Stop a Pandemic touches on how John Snow (not that one, or that one) found the source of an epidemic of cholera in 1850s London, and also talks about modern vaccination programmes. This section also discusses how we might defend ourselves from extreme radiation events such as gamma ray bursts — rare but catastrophic — one of which might have caused an ancient extinction.

The final part looks forward — a long way forward. For example, at some point we will have to get off this planet. Our luck will run out eventually. And what might we be like after another million years of evolution, combined with the inevitable technological advances?

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember has made me want to read more about many of the areas it covers — such as human migration out of Africa — which is undoubtedly a good thing. It’s engaging and readable even with the not usually cheerful subject of mass extinction, and ultimately, like human survival against all the odds, it’s a hopeful, optimistic book.

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