Putting the life back in science fiction

That brief window
July 29, 2015, 9:35 pm
Filed under: deep time, futurism, Worldbuilding | Tags: , ,

Well, the book manuscript is done, and I’ve got some beta readers going over it while I figure out the strange world of non-fiction publishing. As I understand it, one not supposed to write a non-fiction book on spec, but rather to have a contract to write the book based on how well you can convince the publisher it will sell, based on your audience. And simultaneous self-publishing is a thing too, apparently. Interesting business, especially when I write a book of 100% speculation about a climate-changed Earth, and it’s called non-fiction.

So I have time to blog more regularly.

One of the things I’ve increasingly noticed is how bad we are with big numbers, and dealing with big numbers turned out to be a central feature of the book. In general, when we look at phrases like a few years, or a few decades, or a few centuries, or a few millennia, or a few thousand years, or a few million years, we fixate on the “few” and ignore whatever comes after that. As a result, we get weird phrases like the Great Oxygenation Event, which took a few billion years back when the Earth switched from an anaerobic atmosphere to aerobic one. It doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that animals have been on land less than 500,000,000 years, or less than a quarter of a billion years. The Primitive Animals Invade the Land Event will end with the expanding sun making such life impossible on Earth long before our little event matches the length of the Great Oxygenation Event, yet people some people still think that the Earth was oxygenated very suddenly, rather than incredibly gradually. All that happened was that people ignored all the zeroes, called a process an event, and confused themselves and their audience.

This applies to human history as well. If we take the Omo 1 skull as the oldest modern human, we’ve got at least 195,000 years of history to our species already.

We’re young compared to most species, but we’ve still got a lot of history, and most of it is lost. Our documented history is about the last 5,000 years, and the archaeological becomes fragmentary shortly thereafter. In other words, thanks to writing, we’ve got partial access to about 1% of our apparent history as a species. The conventional interpretation of this is that humans were basically boring for the first 99% of our history, then something changed, and we took off like gypsy moths, expanding into this outbreak of humanity we call civilization. Prior to that, we were peaceable-ish hunter gatherers living in harmony with nature.

What changed? The more I read, the more I tend to agree with the archaeologist Brian Fagan. In The Long Summer, he postulated that civilization arose after the last ice age because the climate stabilized after the ice age, not because humans changed in any real way. There’s some evidence to back him up. Alvin Alley, in the Two Mile Time Machine, talks about Dansgaard-Oeschger (D-O) events in the glacial record. These are times when the global temperature bounces back and forth many degrees, and they are thought to be due to ice from Hudson’s Bay glaciers messing up global thermohaline circulation in a semi-periodic way. Basically, the climate at Glacial Maximum is stably cold, the climate in the interglacial is stably warm, and the times between those periods have the climate oscillating between cold, colder, and coldest in something like a 1,500 year pattern with lots of noise. In such a continually changing global environment, things like agriculture would be difficult to impossible, so it’s no surprise that humans would be nomadic hunter-gatherers. If there were something before the D-O events, the evidence would be lost, and the absence of evidence would make us think that, until 5,000 years ago, we were primitive savages.

If you’ve been following the news, you know that evidence for agriculture 23,000 years ago turned up in Israel (link to article). The last glacial maximum happened from 26,000-19,000 years ago. If one believes that stable climates make things like agriculture possible, then it’s easy to believe that someone invented farming during the last glacial maximum, and that it was lost when the D-O events started up and their culture shattered.

So how often did humans go through this, discover and lose agriculture? We have no clue. Except for that fortuitous find in the Sea of Galilee, when a long drought temporarily revealed an archaeological site that is currently underwater again, there’s no other evidence for truly ancient agriculture.

The last interglacial was the Eemian, 130,000-115,000 years ago. Did the Neanderthals invent agriculture back then? There’s little undisputed fossil or archaeological evidence from that time, and who knows if any evidence still exists. What we do know is that the Eemian people did not smelt a lot of metal, for there were ample ore deposits waiting for us to find them on the surface. We know they didn’t use petroleum or coal for the same reason, and there’s no evidence that they moved massive amounts of Earth or built great pyramids, as we’ve done. Those kinds of evidence seem to last. But if they had small neolithic farming towns, especially in northern Europe, the evidence would have disappeared in the subsequent glaciation.

This pattern applies to our future too, especially if climate change collapses our civilization and forces the few survivors to be hunters and gatherers. Our civilization would lose continuity, our history would vanish, our flimsy concrete buildings would collapse into rubble, and coastal ruins would disappear under the rising sea. What would remain of us, except our earthworks and our descendants? My rough guess is that such an age of barbarism would last between 200 and 2,000 years before the climate stabilized and civilization became possible again. Would the people building their civilization on the other side think they were the first civilized people, too, that their history began when they were created a few thousand years prior, as we used to think?

That may be the fate of future humanity on Earth, even if our species lasts a billion years. When the climate is stable for thousands of years, there will be outbreaks of humanity–what we call civilization, when we temporarily escape nature’s constraints, grow fruitful, and multiply to fill the place. In between these outbreaks there will be far fewer of us, and we’ll live in smaller, simpler societies. What we will know will be a balance between what we’ve retained and (re)discovered, and what crisis, collapse, and continual change has caused us to lose. Our history, at any one time, will be that brief window of a few thousand years between discovery and loss, with only enigmatic artifacts, like those 23,000 year-old seeds, to tell us that we weren’t the first ones to discover something. They’ll be enough to hint at how much history we’ve lost, but not enough to let us recover it.


16 Comments so far
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What would remain of us, except our earthworks and our descendants? My rough guess is that such an age of barbarism would last between 200 and 2,000 years before the climate stabilized and civilization became possible again. Would the people building their civilization on the other side think they were the first civilized people, too

I suspect an oral tradition of history, however distorted, would be sufficient for some remembrance of the past. There would also likely be some books preserved to provide glimpses of the past and preserving some history. In addition, some buildings and artifacts would survive to provide some sense that there was an earlier, advanced civilization.

Comment by Alex Tolley

That’s certainly somewhat true. For example, the Pyramids of Giza will be around. As for books? That’s one of those hard ones, unless we’re talking about archives deliberately buried in the sand of a very dry desert.

The other thing I was thinking about, that I didn’t mention, is that with severe climate change, it would take 100,000-400,000 years for temperatures to come back to 20th Century normal. During that time, climates will continue to fluctuate. I do wonder how that will affect our future history. It’s an interesting view, because it suggests that our view of the world is limited by both disruptive climate change and losses to time.

Comment by Heteromeles

The long term fluctuations are probably the real issue here. Constant civilizational setbacks will probably outlast any attempts to maintain any sort of history, oral or otherwise. Certainly none of our artifacts or buildings will survive that long, and certainly not books, however well preserved

The is a project to try to preserve our knowledge that is supported by “The Long Now” foundation. Heath Rezabek has been designing concepts for a “vessel” (and ark really) to withstand the ages to allow a civilizational reboot. These vessels will be planted on Earth and also on the moon (very Monolith). How far a person can penetrate depends on knowledge and ability to use certain technologies. I don’t recall his hoped for lifespan, but I don’t think it was for 100’s of thousands of years, so it may be irrelevant to the discussion.
Heatgh is now part of Icarus Interstellar if you want to contact him. [ http://www.icarusinterstellar.org/team/heath-rezabek/ ].

Comment by Alex Tolley

Actually, I looked at what the Long Now is doing, as well as the issues with transmitting knowledge to the deep future. The bottom line is that transmitting anything that’s not intuitively obvious is very difficult, especially if you’re trying to send it more than a few centuries into the future.

One essential problem is that languages are thought to effectively randomize themselves over something like 10,000 years (that based on the differences between Proto-Indo-European and its modern descendants like English and Spanish, which is about 5,000 years difference). For example, we can’t deduce any language they spoke in the last ice age from modern or archaeological languages. The randomization goes forward too, slowed down somewhat by writing. Whatever they will be speaking in 10,000 years, it’s not present now.

The Rosetta stone trick only worked because they were able to translate from a language they did know, Greek, into two, demotic and hieroglyphic Egyptian, which they not only didn’t know, but they’d misinterpreted as ideographic rather than logographic. It also turns out that there are no ideographic languages, so there’s no known way of transmitting ideas directly through symbols without using some representation of spoken language.

That’s two chapters in the book, and there’s a lot more to be said.

Comment by Heteromeles

You make a good point. So 200 years is doable, but 2000 is getting iffy, and 10^5 years impossible based on current thinking of knowledge transmission. I would counter that humans could learn an old language with instruction, e.g. having video of objects and actions accompanied by audio and visual depictions of words. Our descendants could learn to speak the ancient languages and then bootstrap from there. In principle I think knowledge transmission could work, but it is obviously much more involved that Rosetta stones. In many ways it is analogous to communicating with aliens, or even animals), only with the advantage that our descendants will be human as they try to climb back to civilization.

Other problems I assume you address is resources, now that we have exhausted the easy to reach ores and fossil fuel reserves..

Comment by Alex Tolley

Yes to all that. Since you’ve been reading my ideas, I suspect that what I say about resources won’t surprise you very much. The nice thing is that there will be all this stuff lying around in cities to recycle (until it corrodes and needs to be smelted again). The bad news is all that stuff is history, so people will be mining the past to build their futures, pretty much as they did until the 20th Century or so.

Comment by Heteromeles

How does one get on the beta reader list? I am rather an energy-and-minerals nerd and this topic piques my interest. I understand if you don’t particularly want another reader.

Comment by Matt

Seconded to getting on beta readers list, if you could use more.

Comment by a scruffian

Tragedy of the Commons: The actual historical commons of medieval England did not actually suffer Tragedy of the Commons. And many other natural resources have been unowned or collectively owned without suffering a Tragedy of the Commons. If the term is so tainted that it’s better not to use it, what term do you use for a bunch of individually-motivated people collectively over-exploiting fisheries, forests, groundwater, etc. to the point of ruin? Or are the cases different enough that you wouldn’t try to introduce an overarching term to encompass them?

I’m asking here because it seems rude to drag the women in writing topic on Charlie’s Diary further to the side with this interesting tangent.

Comment by Matt

Hi Matt,

Check out https://heteromeles.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/are-markets-commons-perhaps-they-should-be-managed-that-way/.

I think you’re right: I’ll post something on this latter tonight or tomorrow.

Comment by Heteromeles

How long does it take to develop neolithic-style farming if conditions are right?

My first thought is that you’d have to do it with wild plants, which do not very well fit your needs, and it might take a long time to breed them. But culture could leave people pre-adapted to that.

Like, if the culture maintains the idea that you should let the very best breed, people who harvest wild plants might try to save seeds to sow later etc. They might be proto-agriculturalists all along. Similarly if they choose not to butcher the “best” animals they hunt.

With enough pre-adaptation, it might take only a few hundred years to build small cities which might then be destroyed and rebuilt depending on relatively short climate change.

Comment by J Thomas

“What we do know is that the Eemian people did not smelt a lot of metal, for there were ample ore deposits waiting for us to find them on the surface. We know they didn’t use petroleum or coal for the same reason, and there’s no evidence that they moved massive amounts of Earth or built great pyramids, as we’ve done.”

It’s vaguely possible they might have smelted only the best ore, leaving us with a whole lot of second-rate deposits to mine. Similarly they may have used only the best petroleum and coal, and maybe better things which are now gone. But something must have stopped them before they did it on the wholesale way we’re doing it. They couldn’t be like us because they did not create a mass extinction on our scale.

Comment by J Thomas

Do you think that our current interglacial is abnormally stable in terms of global climate compared to others in the last 500,000 years?


Comment by Tony

That’s what the Milankovich cycles seem to be saying, at least compared to the Eemian interglacial that happened ~100,000 years ago.

Comment by Heteromeles

When would the cycles have last lined up to produce unusually stable interglacials or maxima?

Comment by Tony

I’m not an expert, and the best readily available illustration is the cycles graph in the Milankovitch Cycles entry in Wikipedia. That said, if you look at those graphs, it appears that the last time the Earth was like this was around 400,000 years ago.

Comment by Heteromeles

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