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.

The Other

The fear of The Other is not new. It’s hard-wired, like the fight-or-flight response and our ability to detect movement far away to the left or right in the corner of our eyes. These are defence mechanisms, selected by evolution, that help explain why we dominate the planet with our agriculture, architecture and alopecia.

The irony is, we must embrace The Other to progress as a civilisation. We must subdue our most fundamental, instinctive reactions if we are to move forward. Hiding your family in a cave has not been a viable strategy for the continuation of Homo sapiens since the glaciers receded, and it may be what did for our cousins Homo neanderthalensis and Homo floresiensis, the Hagrids and the Hobbits.

If you want to make friends, start a family, build a business, provide a service, learn new skills, do virtually anything, you must dial down the fear of The Other and dial up the social. This starts with tribes. Tribes are a social construct, a group acting as a buffer between family and The Other. Tribes are the familiar: The Known Other, in a way.

In the distant past before even colour television, we each might have belonged to a single tribe. Those in the same village or settlement or cave, or gathered around the same fire. There are still some in western society who never leave their home town and the comfort of their tribe. Today we belong to several tribes at once. The tribe of work colleagues, the tribe of pub mates, the tribe of gay people, the tribe of people who stayed at that hotel that week and ended up in that bar together every night, the tribe of every online forum in which we participate, the tribe of our football club, the tribe of our nation. Each tribe carves a circle of people in a Venn diagram with ourself at the common intersection, possibly alone.

And to each tribe you present a different face. At first it is the mask you wore when you were The Other, gaining entry and acceptance to the tribe. Sometimes that mask never slips, but time brings woodworm and, eventually, the last remnants of otherness fade.

The stresses reappear when two separate tribes meet. You belong to both, but most others belong only to one. At parties, those in common tribes huddle together: workmates there, pub chums there, each avoiding The Other. And you ping-pong between, until alcohol dissolves the borders.

One of life’s most valuable lessons: to bring separate groups together — perhaps two companies have merged, or you’re team-building, or getting married and want the family to meet the future in-laws — apply alcohol. It’s a social lubricant. And it works because it lowers defence mechanisms: you lose your fear of The Other. (I’m generalising, I know. Not everyone needs alcohol to do this.)

Unfortunately this works only when the tribes can see the whites of each other’s eyes, and the glistening bottles behind the bar. It fails to scale. Especially, it fails nationally and internationally.

Britain is a mongrel land, invaded in peace and in war for over two thousand years. We are all immigrants, if you look back far enough. And yet today major political parties still raise the spectre of The Other over immigration, because it triggers our innermost fears.

The effect in the United States is even more pronounced. It is a country of immigrants, a country of others, built from waves of migration that overwhelmed the native population in just a few centuries. And yet it is massively fearful of The Other. The tragic events in Boston in the last week demonstrate this all too clearly. A desperation to pin the blame on the not-we, someone with the “wrong” religion, or skin colour, or any other differentiating feature that could be identified. A desperation then, even by those elected and sworn to uphold the Constitution, to deny the arrested Other the rights accorded to the tribe. Here’s US Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina):

The logic goes something like this: members of the tribe don’t act this way; we believe this person did so; therefore, he must not be a member of the tribe. And you see tweets like this, retweeted out of context by, among others, journalists:

Al Qaeda has been talking about the bombings, nudge nudge, wink wink. Of course. Everyone has been talking about the bombings. There’s a thread on a gay forum. There’s a thread on Mumsnet. They don’t mean the suspects are gay mothers. In truth I’d be more suspicious if Al Qaeda forums weren’t talking about the bombings. This is plain and simple fear-mongering.

Fear regresses us. We revert to ape logic, casting a tribe member out onto the hostile savannah for displeasing the alpha. It is not the act of a modern, decent, respectable, human civilisation.

And yet it happens anyway. Because the alternative is to admit that the person arrested is not, after all, The Other. He’s part of the tribe. He’s one of us.