(If you are in the UK, you can watch the high quality version of the video on the BBC web site)
I'll be back to more regular posting next week.
Have a fun and safe New Year's Eve!
Tags:Doctor Who, biology, Adipose
They did terrible things to each other because they could not have children. But before the war - during the war - they had done terrible things to each other even though they could have children. The Human Contradiction held them. Intelligence at the service of hierarchical behavior. They were not free. All he could do for them, if he could do anything, was to let them be bound in their own ways. Perhaps next time their intelligence would be in balance with their hierarchical behavior, and they would not destroy themselves.In Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (aka Lilith's Brood) the very alien Oankali collect the remnants of humanity that have survived global nuclear war. The remaining humans are stored aboard their interstellar ship while both they and the flora and fauna of the Earth are "repaired" using the Oankali's superior biological engineering skills. The humans are eventually given a choice: they can join the Oankali, living with them in bioengineered settlements and trading their genes to create Human-Oankali Construct children, or they can live as resistors, with an extended life span and free from the aliens' presence, but completely sterile. They are not allowed to have children because the Oankali believe that the "Human Contradiction" - intelligence coupled with hierarchical behavior, inherited from our ape-like ancestors - would always ultimately lead to the destruction of the human race.
~ Adulthood Rites, by Octavia Butler
"The Oankali believe . . . the Oankali know to the bone that it's wrong to help the Human species regenerate unchanged because it will destroy itself again. To them it's like deliberately causing the conception of a child who is so defective that it must die in infancy."Now a new nonfiction book by science writer Thomas Hayden and reproductive biologist Malcolm Potts - Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World - makes essentially the same argument. In an article for the December 19th issue of New Scientist they present an overview of their thesis that is based, in part, on our similarity to our close biological cousins, the chimps:
~ Imago, by Octavia Butler
It sounds very much like they are arguing that biology is destiny - male biology, anyway. It would seem that the Butler's Oankali are right, our evolutionary heritage has doomed to a continuous cycle of war and violence. But that would be too downbeat to make a very good (or at least salable) book. Hayden and Potts don't think it's all that bleak. They argue that the proper kind of "nurture" can win out over "nature":
Chimpanzees -- and virtually every hunter-gatherer society studied -- live in male-dominated social groups, in which the males are blood relatives and females move from one group to another. The dominant males largely monopolize breeding opportunities, leaving younger males with little choice but to work their way up the in-group hierarchy, or to launch attacks on neighboring out-groups if they are to secure the resources, territory, and females they require to survive and pass on their genes.
We are all descended, in other words, from the victors in conflicts over resources, territory, and mates. The majority of those battles was instigated and fought by males, with the most skilled, ferocious and cunning surviving to pass on their genes. Human males today bear the marks of this legacy in the behaviors and impulses that still spur us on to lethal conflict -- including the widespread and devastating association between war and rape -- even when other solutions might be both available and preferable.
But crucially, the fact that war is an evolved behavior does not in any sense condemn us to a future as bloody as our collective past. Behavioral predispositions function in response to environmental stimuli: change the environment, and you change the biological response. In Sex and War; we show that a series of relatively simple strategies, including the empowerment of women and slowing population growth, can help the biology of peace win out over the biology of war.I confess that to some skepticism, though, about both their hypothesis and their solutions. That's pretty much a knee-jerk response on my part to anyone who gives seemingly simple evolutionary explanations for what are often complex human behaviors. I'll have to read the book before I can actually give a knowledgeable opinion one way or the other. I will say that empowerment of women sounds like a far better solution to create peace than losing our humanity altogether.
If you haven’t read any Egan, you so should. He takes the wildest frontiers of today’s science and turns them into truly brainbending speculative fiction that continually challenges the reader’s ideas of both reality and humanity. He’s also a terrific sentence-by-sentence writer.Egan writes hard science fiction that is frequently based on mathematics, physics and computer science. For example, his short story "Wang's Carpets" involves the discovery of truly alien aliens that are living embodiments of Wang tiles.
Mstislav, our most dedicated gardener now that Sledge rarely emerges from the Attic, has been tinkering with the carbon-dioxide balance, a dangerous but crucial sport. At six or seven hundred parts per million, the air in here is dreadful but sustains life. Regular jiggering of organic functions is needed to keep the ratio from ballooning to something deadly. To make a long story short, after an alarmingly high reading Mstislav discovered a mound of rotting mangrove fronds under a seemingly healthy hillock of wheatgrass—a camouflaged nightmare of poison-leaching compost. Endgame for us could be that simple, that foolish.Half of the oxygen in the air we breathe is produced by phytoplankton, tiny plants living in Earth's oceans. The plant life is crucial to maintaining the proper balance of gases in Earth's biosphere. It's only natural, then, that NASA has been trying to develop efficient bioregenerative life support systems that incorporate plants and bacteria for long term space settlements and space stations.
~ "Lostronaut" by Jonathan Lethem
"If the current [funding] level is maintained, I would not expect to see a functional ground-based regenerative system for 10-15 years, or a space-rated system for 15-20 years," Finger said. "If a long-duration manned mission becomes a reality, then I would expect the budget to increase significantly for all aspects of life support research."Browsing through the NASA web site, it doesn't look like there has been too much progress in the past ten years. The International Space Station (ISS) has a Plant Research Unit is being used to study the effects of microgravity on plant growth and reproduction . It's important research to determine the best plant strains and growth conditions for low gravity environments, but it's just one of the first steps in developing a self-sustaining environment. Science not Fiction has more about NASA's plant research.
In addition to the reality of funding, doubts about the reliability of biological systems remain fixed in many people’s minds. Can a closed system recycle waste material quickly enough to renew vital resources? Will the reduced gravity environment of space affect the biological system in ways we cannot assess on Earth? What back-up life support must lunar or planetary colonies have if a plant-based system should fail? Above all, is the concept truly feasible?
"The challenges of designing a working bioregenerative life support system are gargantuan," Morris admitted. He noted that investigators will need to find ways to make such a system extraordinarily compact and energy-efficient. Physicochemical back-up systems add a slew of weight and energy requirements.
This Friday, December 19th at 7:00pm, nine authors from A Field Guide to Surreal Botany will share their botanical discoveries at the KGB Bar in New York City (83 E. 4th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues). Jason Erik Lundberg (editor) and contributors Erik Amundsen, Steve Berman, John Bowker, Christopher M. Cevasco, Kris Dikeman, Susan Fedynak, Matthew Kressel, Livia Llewellyn, and James Trimarco will present their work and sign copies of the book, which will be available via Mobile Libris. Artwork will also be displayed during the reading. Admission is free.More details.
| Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga|
Neuroscientist Gazzaniga is "adept at aiding even the scientifically unsophisticated to grasp his arguments about what separates humans from other animals. His main premise is that human brains are not only proportionately larger than those of other primates but have a number of distinct structures, which he explores along with evolutionary explanations for their existence."
| Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer|
Science writer Zimmer "guides us on a memorable journey into the invisible but amazing world within and around a tiny bacterium. He reveals a life-or-death battle every bit as dramatic as that on the Serengeti and one that offers profound insights into how life is made and evolves."
| The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson|
"The Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of The Ants render the extraordinary lives of the social insects in this visually spectacular volume. [...] Coming eighteen years after the publication of The Ants, this new volume expands our knowledge of the social insects (among them, ants, bees, wasps, and termites) and is based on remarkable research conducted mostly within the last two decades."
Cloning: A Beginner's Guide by Aaron D. Levine
This is a well-reviewed introductory guide to the science and ethics of cloning.
Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin.
"Fish paleontologist Shubin illuminates the subject of evolution with humor and clarity in this compelling look at how the human body evolved into its present state."
| Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach|
Roach offers a witty look at the science of sex. I think it would make a nice gift bundled with Laura Woodmansee's Sex in Space.
| The Science of Heroes: The Real-Life Possibilities Behind the Hit TV Show by Yvonne Carts-Powell|
Carts-Powell uses the TV show Heroes as a jumping off point for discussing biology and physics. I actually have a copy of this which I'll post a review for soon.
| Beyond Human: Living with Robots and Cyborgs by Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malatre|
"The simple title of this book belies its profundity-and its sense of humor. Besides an up-to-date, comprehensive overview of developments in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence, physicist Benford and biologist Malartre also address deeper questions about the relationship between the brain and the mind, as well as humankind's nervous relationship with increasingly sophisticated machines"
|Infected: A Novel by Scott Sigler (read the original post). Sigler's follow-up novel, Contagious, will be released in hardcover on December 30th.|
|Unwelcome Bodies ,a short story collection by Jennifer Pelland (read the original post).|
|Dr. Franklin's Island, a young adult novel by Ann Halam (read the original post).|
|Ratha's Courage is another young adult novel (read the original post). It's the long-awaited fifth book in Clare Bell's "The Named" series.|
|Dogs by Nancy Kress is (read the original post) is a biological warfare thriller.|
|Seeds of Change is an anthology featuring short stories by Tobias Buckell, Ken MacLeod, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, KD Wentworth, Jeremiah Tolbert, Jay Lake, Ted Kosmatka, Blake Charlton, Mark Budz and John Joseph Adams. (Read the original post)|
|Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker and Blindsight by Peter Watts may represent a new SF movement: neuropunk. (Read the original post)|
Riders of the Storm is the latest novel set in Julie Czerneda's Clan Chronicles universe. (read the original post)
|Paul McAuley's The Quiet War features engineering of both people and ecosystems.(Read the original post)|
|Invertebrata Enigmatica: Giant Spiders, Dangerous Insects, and Other Strange Invertebrates in Classic Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Chad Arment is a collection of SF short stories "involving strange invertebrates". I haven't read it - or blogged about it - but it sounds like fun.|