Annalee Newitz, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

It's a great slogan, we come from the future, and the site's whole aesthetic makes one of the more reliably interesting sites out there. Annalee Newitz is the site's editor in chief, so frankly she very nearly deserves your cash on that basis alone for her new book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, but the book's subtitle clinches it: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.

Even if I wasn't teaching a course this spring about fears of the apocalypse, I would've really enjoyed this book. Newitz gives you a great tour of planetary history, emphasizing the five mass extinctions that mark Earth's evolutionary record, then spending lots of time on human evolution over the last million years. Worth writing home about? The section explaining just how narrow is our species diversity, compared to that of mice, and the reasons behind the situation.
But the key to this book is that Newitz keeps reminding you that if we want to think usefully about the future, we need to think about the long term. At a minimum, this means matching our million years of recognizable evolution since H. ergaster with the next million years. En route to our current biology, we've changed a great deal, and since science says that our genes are still undergoing fairly active selection, we might as well think blue-sky about where we'll go next.

At bottom, Newitz' thesis is that we'll be heading for the stars, probably just as soon as we figure out how to build a space elevator. (Mind you, George Dvorsky has explained on Newitz's own site just why we'll probably never build one....) If we don't manage a space elevator, though, we'll either build a singularity or in fact turn into one, and either way, extinction just won't be able to touch us again because we'll be such fricking geniuses that we'll eat the universe to spread everywhere.

When does science become magical thinking, and can it even count as a critique to say that? In amongst all the fascination are batches of staggering arrogance, not Newitz' but of the scientists she interviews, so it's a fun exercise to pick through the egos and ideas. It'd be great if someone humble was right, and if we'll be able to survive indefinitely with humility, but wow, the chances of that seem low.

Me, I'm just going to keep trying to nurse my tomatoes past their blossom end rot; I'll make another batch this fall of crabapple jelly; and I'll wish for genuine humaneness in the world. It can't hurt, can it?

Of course, maybe we should just read David Brin's thoughts about all this, or check in briefly with Pictures for Sad Children, and get over ourselves.


Alex said…
The singularity crowd is an interesting case study in techno-fetishism. As fascinating a cultural phenomenon as it is, though, I find it aggravating that its adherents turn up in the press whenever there's a slow news day. The Pictures for Sad Children pretty much gets at the heart of the critique, and in case you haven't seen it, the cartoonist takes up the issue again here:

For all of the breathless predictions about our inevitable future, the singularity people strike me as having a very impoverished vision of the future. They put forward a teleological narrative where the advance of technology makes everything bigger, better, and more wonderful to the point where humans and machines achieve a happy wedding forever. It's a narrative that also happens to flatter the technology industry, which no doubt adds to its appeal in Silicon Valley. The other problem is that whether or existence is biological and/or technological, it still has a material base that has a real environmental impact, as the New York Times reported about a year ago.

Your gloss of Newitz reminds me a bit of the moral wrangling in Star Trek over the "prime directive." The prime directive isn't about non-interference alone, but is based on the assumption that all societies everywhere will eventually achieve space travel on their own terms, and take what the Enterprise crew assumes to be their rightful place when in Starfleet's estimate they are ready.

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