Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Living the End Days

            I've decided that I must be an honest doomer. I must accept doomerism on all levels - loathe though I be! Otherwise, there can be no progress on my part. It is required of me that I realize - and accept -  that the "System" is broke and too broke to fix.

            I know several hard-core doomers, those who believe civilization or humanity itself is doomed to extinction. Some of these hold that our imminent disappearance is a good thing. Wo/man, they hold, is a "cancer" or "virus on the face of the earth". A few more admit the possibility but cannot fully (emotionally, inwardly) accept and "embrace" the inevitability of the trajectory we are on and the vanishingly small amount of time we have left to make a "course correction" to avoid total catastrophe. Until quite recently, a few years I would think, this was my own position on the question of our civilizational crisis..


           Non-acceptance - or outright denial - of our crisis may indeed provide a illusory (and - oh, so fragile!) sense of security. But, much worse, non-acceptance prevents us from seeing the possibilities that collapse opens up. There is an evolutionary, ecological analog of our planetary crisis. Mass extinction events such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs and flying reptiles, leaving the mammals and birds to run the world. Mass extinctions tear up and rewrite the rule book. They open new evolutionary pathways for life to explore and exploit. The world that emerges from a mass extinction is, in the long run, richer, more diverse, even more resilient (note 1). 

           Intelligence appears as an emergent phenomenon of extinction: critters with big brains, if they survive, tend to get even brainier. New species, even new forms of life, rapidly - and unexpectedly - evolve to occupy vacated ecological niches. New, more complex, networks of ecological relatedness appear. Post-extinction periods are generally periods of heightened biological and ecological innovation. "Necessity is the Mother of Invention".

         We humans living today will remain sterile if we fail to see that our "System" - the one that gave us birth and which nourished us - is failing, is, in effect, dying. It will die: all trend lines show that we are on a non-sustainable trajectory (note 2). But the death of the old System brings the possibility of new beginnings into existence. (If the System did not die these potential births would remain, at best, unfulfilled, latent, sterile..) The death of our globalized, centralized, hierarchalized, top-down systems of control and governance create the opportunity - and the impetus! - for autonomous, self-governing, decentralized, participatory ways of community life to emerge. The transition won't be easy (it will most likely be hellish) but the transition could never happen if the old order was not swept aside to make room for the new.

                          Crossroads, crisis, the parting of the ways, new beginnings

           Ultimately, we - or at least I - must face an unpalatable truth. One, moreover, that is decidedly "psychologically incorrect" in the dominant hubristic, narcissistic neoconservative cultural frame of reference. 

            To be empowered, to possess power, to wield power that serves and blesses life (as opposed to power that poisons or stunts life), I must open myself to the suffering of the world. Otherwise, I too, am doomed.


1-  The rate of extinction for higher taxa (above species level) goes down with each succeeding mass extinction. Why? It as if there were a "learning curve", life is learning to build resilience to mass extinction events. Historian Norman Cohn noted that civilizational transitions seem to happen more rapidly, with less overall destruction, over time. Again, the pattern is of increasing resilience over time.

"Raup collaborated with former UChicago colleague Jack Sepkoski and others to show that there were two components to extinction: a slowly decreasing background rate, interrupted by rare and possibly periodic mass extinctions." (emphasis added) 

2- some notes on current unsustainability 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Prophecy

 Abbreviations used:

CC - climate change

CO2 - carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas (GHG) responsible for global warming (GW)

GHG - greenhouse gases. Gases like carbon dioxide and methane which trap outgoing infrared radiation (heat) thus contributing to global warming. GHG act like an insulating layer: the more there are, the better the insulation and the hotter the earth gets.

GW - global warming 

           Each of our action produces unintended consequences. Some of these consequences are beneficial; others, not so much.. (Edgar Morin: La M├ęthode, "├ęcologie de l'action)

           In thinking about the trajectory the world is following - ecocidal, suicidal -, I am led to reflect on the role that neoconservative values, ideology and hubris play in the unfolding tragedy. Neocons adulate the Brash and the Bold, the iconoclasts, the mavericks and scofflaws: Donald Trump, the Philippines' homicidal macho president Rodrigo Duterte, France's Islamophobic populist Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage of Brexit (in)fame. You get the picture: the folks who love to strut their political incorrectness (and gain popularity and votes doing so).

                                           Let's hope Honest Abe was right..
        I believe this political attitude can be legitimately seen as an extension, intensification (or degeneration) of the hubris of Western European Christian culture. Five centuries ago, Christian Europe arrogantly assumed the role of converting the "lost souls" outside Europe to the One True Faith. Over time, the power of the Church dwindled, the mask fell away, revealing economic exploitation - and the political leverage it brought - as the true goals.

          Today, the folly of this approach to running a planet is becoming evident. Global warming (GW), due to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of human industry, transport and industrialized agriculture, threatens the world's major food production centers. Terrorism and war wait in the wings. The traditional horsemen of the apocalypse: famine, plague and war.. or - more cynically - "Mother Nature's birth regulation program"..

         It is now becoming clear, that in order to survive and thrive, human societies should act to minimize the production of "unknown unknowns". (We except those hardy individuals who select themselves as "expendable", who deliberately adopt risky occupations, for example, astronauts, soldiers, doctors fighting ebola epidemics, firefighters. There are legitimate risks that need to be taken and someone has to take them!) Unknown unknowns are the most troublesome unknowns, the ones we are ignorant of. Such unknowns generally emerge and become impactful when a system (ecosystem, social system, organism, enterprise..) is pushed beyond the normal range of values it was designed to function in. Known unknowns, on the other hand, are the one's we have learned to live with like the natural seasonal variations in temperature and storm risk. In principle we can adapt our behaviors to the expected range of variation of known unknowns. We put aside light jackets and sweaters as well as raincoats and umbrellas to deal with the (known, expected) variations in spring and fall weather. For winter, we put aside snow shovels, heavy boots, salt and sand.

          When it comes to the health of essential ecosystem services, to maintaining climate stability, or the potential for ethnoracial conflict, we should act, collectively, so that the primary unknowns society has to deal with are known unknowns. In particular, we should avoid pushing vital systems - upon which our lives depend - outside the normal range of operating values they were designed (or evolved) to handle. Such wise policies would, for example, stabilize GHG emissions to minimize nasty (unexpected) surprises in the functioning of vital climatic systems and large regional ecosystems

         A prophecy: it is now too late to avoid Imminent Mass Human Die Off (IMHDO). Put bluntly - the world is screwed (note 1). I predict (going out on a limb here) that it is now too late to stabilize global warming within 1, 1.5, 2 degree Celsius (or whatever the limit of the month is..) A Permian style meltdown of polar region carbon stores has begun, reinforced by powerful positive feed backs (note 2). If the brakes on greenhouse gas emission were slammed on hard, there is a decent chance the planet would move back from a transition to a decidedly warmer global climate. However, this would just be good luck. It is just as likely, if not more so, that "rising living standards" will continue to pump up greenhouse gas levels and that Gaia, the planetary ecosystem, will soon tip into a warmer climatic submode (note 3). Perhaps future generations will live on an earth warmer by 4 or 5 C compared to the world we live in today. Portions of the world could actually become too hot to sustain human life before the century is over. 

            A wounded earth would then - eventually - slide into the next Ice Age. The warmest portion of the present Interglacial warm period, the hypsitherm, occurred several thousand years ago. We should be cooling off now, slowly sliding into the next glacial era. It is interesting to note that the earth was, in fact, beginning to cool off until the industrial revolution came along and began pumping all those GHG into the atmosphere. The collapse of industrial civilization and global population will, one presumes, allow natural Ice Age dynamics to re-instate themselves. A diminished humanity living on an ecologically diminished earth will encounter the challenges of the next Ice Age with diminished technological capacity to adapt. A Karmic payback, one images, for our arrogance, inflation and hubris.

"As a man sows, so shall he reap" - Jesus

"As you sow the seed so shall you reap the fruit."  - Buddha

            God/dess knows how the combined impacts of species extinction, ecosystem service destruction, and planetary overheating will affect the dynamics of the next Ice Age. Would a damaged earth experience a harsher than normal Ice Age? Or would it be delayed and shortened in length because of all the GHG? At this stage of the game, it is anyone's guess - unknown unknowns!

               Yes, indeedy, the world is a ball of confusion - and our current (failing) culture is only making things worse. Please take a few minutes to read these wise words. 

               Can anything be done to stave off the impending collapse (or, at least, mitigate its effects)?


             I also strongly recommend the following two "experimental" novels by our friend Don Hayward. These explore how the collapse of industrial society might unfold in Ontario providence, Canada, and how a new civilization based on respect for Earth, cooperation and local production and governance could arise (if we are lucky).

Hayward: after-the-last-day 

Hayward: the-seventh-path 


1- Note that I wrote "the world is screwed", not "the earth is screwed". The earth, the planet, and the life thereof will survive. We may succeed in damaging the earth's ecosystems to the point that all vertebrates - including ourselves - go extinct (an extremely unlikely proposition!) Nevertheless, insects, plants and bacteria (including primitive bacteria living buried miles deep in rock under the sea floor) would survive. 

             By "world" I mean a civilizational or cultural perspective on the human condition. A "world" - the Late Classical world of the Mediterranean or the world of the Inuit (Eskimos) before the arrival of Europeans - arises from the interaction of human imagination and the biological and physical world in which that human spirit is immersed and from which it arises. Whether or not humanity goes extinct, our present "World" is dead meat because it is ecologically and demographically unviable, unsustainable.

2- The Permian mass extinction event, 250 million years ago, was the worst: more than 90% of plant and animal species on land and sea went extinct. This mass extinction bears creepy similarities to what is happening to our earth today. Then, as today, massive releases of GHG caused planet-wide GW. The only difference is that then the GHG were due to vast subcontinental volcanic eruptive zones (the Siberian Traps), today the GHG are due to human economic and agricultural activity. 

         One of the most disquieting similarities relates to the nature of the actual kill mechanisms. The initial Permian volcanic GHG emissions warmed polar regions. This caused permafrost to thaw and decompose, releasing massive quantities of GHG (CO2 and methane). These new emissions amplified the initial GHG warming (positive feedback loop). In addition, methane - an even more potent GHG than CO2 - was released in industrial quantities as buried methane containing ice thawed in shallow polar coastal waters. It is this second pulse of GHG that is generally accepted today as the knock out punch that did most of the killing. In addition, Late Permian ocean waters became stratified (reducing the vertical circulation that oxygenates deep water) and acidified (from atmospheric CO2 absorption and seabed methane release). Life disappeared from large regions of the oceans as toxic anoxic (no oxygen) zones spread. Now, all these kill mechanisms are becoming active today: permafrost is rapidly melting, methane ice in shallow coastal waters is thawing and releasing methane, anoxic zones are spreading..

                          massive Arctic methane blow hole, Siberia (aerial photo)

             Close up of blow hole. Note tiny human figures on upper rim (left side)

3- Ice Ages are periods of about 100,000 years in which global temperatures drop by about 5 C or more. These are separated by shorter Interglacial warm periods lasting several tens of thousand of years. The current Ice Age / Interglacial periodicity is a relatively recent phenomenon in earth's climatic history. It is due to the current patterns of deep water ocean circulation arising from the joining of North and South America about two million years ago.

           Not all Ice Ages and Interglacials are created equal! Some Ice Ages are colder than others, some Interglacials are warmer than others. If Ice Ages and Interglacials are two dominant modes that the earth's climate systems swing through then Ice Ages and Interglacials possess several sub-modes. It is conceivable that our current GHG emissions might "pop" our current climate system into a warmer sub-mode. An analog to the world we are probably headed toward would be the last Interglacial (Eemian) when hippopotamuses waddled in the Thames and Rhine rivers while forests grew on what is now arctic tundra. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Book Review: Life in the Universe, expectations and constraints

Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Louis N Irwin: Life in the Universe, expectations and constraints (Springer-Verlag, 2006) 172 pages, extensive references. 

Detail of active ice surface of Jupiter's moon Europe. Is there life in the ocean under that thin ice shield?

Click on image for enlargement

Another ecosystem in our solar system?

                   How would satellite based remote detection or a robotic space probe recognize the presence of life within our own solar system or on exoplanets?

                    The short answer: search for indicators of

1- adequate energy flows

2- chemical cycling:  auto-regenerating reactive cycles employing an external energy source (solar energy, chemical energy stored in mineral reserves..). Special attention should be payed to strong chemical disequilibria of chemical species susceptible of incorporation in biological processes (O2, N2, CH4..)

3- presence of a suitable solvent for biochemical reactions in sufficient quantities

4- polymeric chemistry capable of storing and transmitting information necessary for the maintenance and propagation of life.

                     "Astrobiology studies the origin, evolution, distribution, and the fate of life throughout the universe." Thus begins this fascinating trek into a nascent Space Age science, the logical twin of Astrophysics.

                      What, then, is life, the subject mattter of Astrobiology's study? Students of Self-Organization Theory will feel themselves at home with the authors' definition. One can even conclude that Astrobiology itself is a projective application of Self-Organization..

- Life consists of bounded microenvironments in thermodynamic disequilibrium with their surrounding. Energy and selected chemical species constantly flow across the boundaries of the organism. The living, metabolizing cell is characterized by a high internal energy content (stored chemical energy: sugar, starch, fat, oil..) and low internal entropy (high degree of functional organization usually structured hierarchally into several levels)

- Life transforms energy and matter obtained from the environment to maintain low internal entropy (highly structured interior). The cell's / organism's boundary is "porous" and "selective". Energy flows continually through the metabolizing cell, energy used to regenerate the cell / organism: "autopoiesis" (self-production). Creationists aside, autopoiesis does NOT violate the 2nd (or any other) law of thermodynamics. Autopoiesis represents the physical work extracted from the energy flow passing through the cell's / organism's boundary. The internal order - low entropy - of the living cell is, in fact, overcompensated by the amount of degraded energy - high entropy - leaving the cell. The cell's activity thus produces a net increase itn the universe's entropy, satisfying the 2nd law of thermodynamics :-D (Sorry, "intelligent" designers..)

- Life encodes and transmits information. Info is transmitted through genetic codes (DNA), allowing the organized complexity of species to perpetuate across generations, despite the mortality of individual organisms. Useful changes in the genetic code - mutations, epigenetic modifications - must be incorporated into the transmitted code to provide evolutionary adaptations over time. At the individual level, novel experiences are encoded in modifications of nervous systems (or molecular cycles and DNA changes in microbes). Learning, from microbe to mammal, allows for adaptive behavioral change of both individual and societies of individuals.

                 I consider this book a rare chance for the layman to grasp the principles and a good part of the details of an emergent science before it becomes complicated, arcane and specialized into proliferating subdisciplines. In this sense, it is comparable to Darwin's Origin of Species, a highly readable scientific classic accessible to the nonspecialist reader.

                What would life elsewhere look like? Most of the biomass on earth - a planet conducive to the emergence of complex, multicellular life - is, in fact, microbial. Even large organisms, like humans, can be viewed as symbiotic colonies of (microbe-derived) cells which, in turn, incorporate symbiotic microbial colonies: the intestinal bacteria we "use" to digest our food and synthesize essential vitamins. Physical and informational constraints favor small size even on our planet so favored for the evolution of macro-organisms. one can only conclude that most life in the universe will be microbial in nature.

                Life should not be a rare  phenomenon: hundreds of exoplanets orbiting other stars are now catalogued. If earth is taken as a standard, life evolves early whenever the physio-chemical and energetic conditions for its emergence arise. Life is, above all, opportunistic. We would expect to find harbors of life peppered fairly densely throughout the hundred odd billion stars of our home galaxy - not to mention the hundreds of billions of other galaxies.
                 Nevertheless, once established, life tends toward conservatism: if it ain't broke don't fix it. If environments remain stable, stabilizing selection will actually narrow the range of phenotypic (and underlying genetic) variation. Thus the vast body of microbial biomass living below our feet in the soil and underlying rock has remained simple and archaic, ancestral forms from which the complex life of the surface emerged: "organisms will remain static as long as the environment does." When change - evolution - occurs it is usually as a reponse to environmental  change and is rapid, involving extinction and replacement, not gradual change. Thus most life elsewhere is probably structurally and physiologically simple and archaic  - as on earth.

                However, the emerging (meta-)science of Self-Organization Theory strongly suggests that the above considerations paint only a partial picture. Life is opportunistic and will seek (through selective advantage) to occupy - or even create - new ecological niches through modification of the physical environment. Thus, large, more complex organisms - more efficently exploiting specialized ecological niches - would aslo be expected to evolve over time, physical conditions permitting. Example: an atmosphere containing oxygen to fuel the high octane metabolisms required for the mobility of large organisms. Such "higher" organisms require favorable physical environments , a long time to evolve, and are higly energivore. We would expect them to be a relative rarity in the universe. Similar arguments apply to the emergence of intelligence: intelligent life should exist elsewhere but as an exception, a rarity.

                Finally, taking earth and its biological history as a typical "case study", we would expect life to appear most easily and evolve most diversely on worlds presenting a larger variety of environments: deep seas, shallow coastal waters, wetlands, a variety of emerged lands (humid, semi-arid, arid, cold, temperate, tropical..) Once again, in comparing earth with other planetary bodies and moons in our solar system, earth appears to belong to a class of planets especially favored for the emergence and flourishing of life.

               One of the essential requirements for life is the presence of "adequate" energy fluxes. In a sense, energy is the essence of life. A continuous regulated energy flow through the boundaries of an organism maintains life. Without this flow the organism either dies or creates inert - non-metabolizing - copies of its genetic code, for example. spores. Spores remain inert until conditions propice for life reappear at which time they reconstitute the parent organism of which they are clones. Energy flow, in the modern materialistic view of life is the analog of the "vital force" and "soul" of primitive and pre-scientific Western thought.

              The energy flow transversing the boundaries of an organism is used to perform the work of self-reparation and maintenance as well as perform physiochemical work: muscular effort; registering, encoding and storing information derived from the environment and internal body states (neurological activity); production of eggs, embryos or other biomaterials (silk, spiderweb, toxins..)

                On earth, there are two primary energy sources exploited by life: 1- photosynthesis by plants and bacteria and 2- redox chemical reactions (liberating energy stored in inorganic mineral substrates (chemoautotrophy). The chemoautotrophic bacteria, Thiobacillus ferooxidans, extracts energy from minerals by oxydizing sulfur or iron. On earth heterotrophic organisms (incapable of extracting their energy directly from the environment) such as herbivores and carnivores exploit secondary energy sources found in the energy rich molecules synthesized by primary producers such as plants. The rich, diversified ecosystems of energy rich earth typically have several "trophic" levels in the food chain (or web): autotrophic ("self-feeding") primary producers like plants that capture energy from sunlight and store it in energy rich biomolecules (sugars, starches, oils, fats..), heterotrophic ("feeding off others") herbivores which obtain their energy inputs by eating plants, primary carnivores which obtain energy concentrated in the tissues of herbivores. Follow secondary and tertiary carnivores, omnivores (which obtain energy from several distincts sources: plants, herbivores, even lower trophic level carnivores, detritus..), and, finally, detrivores which extract residual energy found in dead / decomposing organic matter. Detrivores form an essential link in the food web by "re-mineralizing" dead organic matter into a form utilizable by photosynthetic plants. Nature, is above all, the Great Recycler - nothing is wasted!

                      On earth sunlight and chemical energy are equivalent in terms of their relative energy yield (energy density). Both are widely employed, to the excusion of other potential energy sources (thermal energy, kinetic energy of currents of water or air, the earth's magnetic field..) However, the potential biological use of other forms of energy is shown by the fact that terrestrial organisms use the earth's gravitational and magnetic fields as well as biogenetic electric fields to obtain information about their environment: orientation with respect to the gravitational field, navigation of birds and eels, location of prey by electric field detection.. It is arguable that on earth these alternative energy sources were simply outcompeted by the abundance of light and chemical energy and were relegated to sensory functions. On other worlds - Jupiter's "water world" moon, Europa, for example - light is absent as an energy source and other forms of energy may be used to power metabolic processes. (If life exists on Europa, it will most likely be found in a global ocean, beneath a planetary ice shield dozens of kilometers thick - no light could penetrate such a thickness of ice.)

                      Several potential energy sources are explored and found capable of providing biologically useful amounts of energy. # 1 - 4 in the following list look particularly promising even for energy hungry multicellular life. # 5 - 6 may still provide usable energy densities for microorganisms:

1- thermal energy (example: volcanic or other internal heat sources which maintain Europa's ocean above the freezing point despite its great distance from the sun)

2- kinetic energy of currents of air or water

3- osmotic gradients (differences in solute concentations across a biological membrane. The energy flux transversing the organism is used "pump" solute molecules inside / outside of the membrane thus storing energy - for later metabolic use - in the osmotic gradient)

4- ionic gradients (differences in ionic species concentration across a biological membrane such as salinity gradients. Same principle as omotic energy storage. On earth ionic gradients across cell walls are use to power nerve impulses and muscle contraction. The energy stored in the ionic gradient was originally obtained from the chemical energy contained in food.)

5- radiation (example: dissociation of water in the ice shield of Europa by magnetically induced radiative flux. The energy in the radiative flux - charged particles accelerated by Jupiter's intense revolving magnetic field - is transfered to liberated atoms of hydrogen and oxygen which would then be employed by microorganisms living in water inclusions in the shield ice. Alternatively, some oxygen could diffuse through the ice shield for use by primitive organisms living on the underside of the ice shield, "ice roof dwellers")

6- magnetic field (Jupiter's magnetic field is 12 times as strong as earth's and therefore could be directly employed as an energy source by European organisms with the energy stored, for example, in energy rich biomolecules.)

7- gravitational field

8- pressure gradients

9- tectonic forces

                    The last three potential energy sources are less promising from an energetic viewpoint but cannot be totally excluded in extreme environmental conditions. Example: large planet with intense gravitational field or pressure gradients.

                    One conclusion seems fairly well established by modern biology. Life as we understand it requires a liquid phase to exist: liquids provide the required density and mobility of bioreactant molecules. The authors examine alternative solvents for biochemistry. For a variety of reasons water appears to be the most suitable solvent: large thermal band in which it remains liquid, high heat of vaporization, proper degree of reactivity with carbon compounds, electrical polarity of the water molecule, etc. Once again, Earth - the "blue planet" because of its oceans - appears to be a cosmic niche particularly suited for life to evolve and to evolve to high levels of complexity and organization.

                   At lower temperatures - upper cyrogenic range - a saturated ammonia / water solution might serve as a biological solvent. Saturated NH3 / H20 geysers - indicating, perhaps, subsurface oceans - have been detected on several of the large moons of the outer solar system (Io, Triton..) Several of these bodies seem to possses adequate energy fluxes, essential for life to emerge. Potential sources of these energy fluxes are gravitational flexing, radioactive metallic planetary cores and induced electric currents in liquid iron cores exposed to Jupiter's intense magnetic field. In addition, several of these bodies exhibit self-regenerating chemical cycles driven by energy fluxes (Titan, Io, Europa, Triton, some levels of Venus' atmosphere..). Such cycles are considered to be the precursors of life. It should be empasized though that the mere presence of such chemical cycyling does not, in itself, indicate the presence of life, merely the POSSIBILITY of life. Titan - a moon of Saturn - shows signs of polymeric chemistry. Thus Titan meets the four requirements of life stated at the beginning of this review:  1- adequate energy flux, 2- chemical cycling, 3- suitable solvents (liquid methane and ethane are possibly suitable biosolvents at low - cyrogenic - temperatures) and 4- polymeric chemistry. Whether any body in our solar system other than earth possesses life is debatable but at least we know what to look for and we are already registering several potential candidates. Microbes and photosynthetic algae may florish on Mars. Europa may harbor marine life the size of shrimp or small fish beneath its ice shield. Because of low temperatures life, if it existed on places like Io, Titan or Triton would be "exotic", probably microbial life existing in saturated ammonia water solution, liquid methane / ethane, or liquid nitrogen. Such life, at this stage of our knowlege, is, of course, highly speculative. Mars and Europa are our best bets for "life as we know it".

                   Interestingly, the authors throw out the popular notion of a "habitable zone" around stars. The idea might still prove useful in the search for earthlike habitats though. It is now recognized that the conventional habitable zone hypothesis is too restrictive, especially for hardy microbial life. Contemporary knowledge of planet formation indicates that planets (or large mooons) pass through an early accretion phase (through gravitational attraction). The infalling matter heats the forming body (kinetic energy). Since water is abundant, one would expect many bodies to pass a part of their existence with a water covered surface. Depending upon the size, chemical composition and distance from the star, millions to billions of years might pass before all the water was frozen. This might give life a chance to evolve, even if the body does not lie within the conventional "habitable zone". We might therefore find fossil microbial - perhaps macroscopic - life forms on Mars and some of the large moons of the outer solar system. Alternatively, on some cooling worlds microbial life (in particular) might be able to pull off the transiton from say, a saturated NH3 / H2O solution to another, low temperature, solvent like liquid ammonia, methane or nitrogen. Don't be TOO surprised if  frigid Triton (a moon of Uranus covered with nitrogen snow) harbors microbes breeding in underground liquid nitrogen oceans using a free radical based chemistry (those nasty free radicals which our bodies spend so much effort destroying and which we attempt to destroy by popping anti-oxidant pills). At low temperatures, the chemical reactions our bodies use are too sluggish to fuel life. Free radical chemistry would fit the bill although at the temperatures our biology operates at free radical chemistry is "too hot to handle" and free radicals damage the integrity of infomation carrying biomolecules causing cellular aging and pre-cancerous genetic damage.

                    The authors conclude with a list of "biosignatures" and "geoindicators" - chemical species and landform modifications - which a satellite based remote life detection program might employ. The number of "hits" in our solar system is quite surprising.

                     This is a technical monograph - published by Springer Verlag - intended for a scientifically literate audience. Technical terms are generally not defined and there is no glossary. A few graphics lack clarity. On the whole, tight, very compact, generally well written. Excellent reading.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Fake news and mythology

What is the relationship between fake news and mythology?

Religious myths, conspiracy theories, and new gnosticisms.

                          First a definition, so we all start on the same page. A definition of fake news:

                          But what about myth? The term has acquired several, sometimes contradictory meanings. In the post-Enlightenment era (19th century and beyond), myth has come to mean a false - "primitive", "superstitious" or "pre-scientific" - description or narrative of the world. Traditionally though, stories that we today call myths - at least the Great Myths of religion - were taken as absolute truths in much the same way that a modern rationalist believes in the statement "two things plus two things gives four things".

               Myths in the traditional - religious - sense were critically  important parts of human psychic architecture. They situated the person in a universe full of sense, meaning and purpose. (In practice, the purposes of some of the hypothesized entities - spirits of the enemies one killed, nature spirits, offended divinities - could be quite malevolent.) The animistic universe of ancient hunter-gatherer peoples was a world full of life, purpose and intent. One placated angry gods, one offered sacrifices to obtain their favor in enterprises. We have forgotten how revolutionary the ancient Greek "philosophers of nature" were. Rather than seek the causes of events in the whims of gods and spirits, they sought to understand the unfolding phenomena and processes of the physical world in terms of material processes (which could be captured in the elegant intellectual forms of mathematics). 

 Pythagorean theorem: in a right triangle the length of longest side squared is equal to the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides. Pythagoras flourished six centuries before Christ.

                One can draw several conclusions from an "evolutionary" perspective. The most obvious is that "Reason" - at least as the dominant mode of thinking - is a relative newcomer on the historical stage. Myth as a form of explanation of the world is vastly older! (In reality, it is an open question if Reason is the dominant mode of thought today.. We seem in some ways to have hit upon the worst of both worlds. We have, collectively, great powers for manipulating the physical world with technology but too often, alas, that manipulation is for idiotic or antihuman ends.)

                  In their highest manifestation, myths are "sacred stories" told to explain the world, why it is like it is, who "we" (the members of our tribe) are and what values we hold. Myths describe the Good Life (particularly the Good Life in a social context). Myths, as narrative, are an outgrowth - an extension and an elaboration - of the "primate politics" of our biological ancestors. They tell who did what to whom, what the outcome was and why that outcome is important to us living today. Myths are "hard-wired" into our human nervous systems: myths and stories are universal, wherever there are humans there is story telling and sacred narrative.

              But why are myths and narrative universal?  One can hazard, with some anthropological and psychological evidence supporting, that it is natural for humans to view the world through the lens of narrative. Because of hard-wired primate political thinking we naturally wonder who did what to whom and why. Our minds are simply hard-wired to think along narrative lines.

             From this perspective, the formal, mathematical abstractions of science are more recent evolutionary acquisitions. As such, "abstract thinking" lacks the compelling force of concrete narrative. Here we see one of the disadvantages that climate scientists and environmental activists have in dealing with the raw, more primitive, emotional narratives of GW "sceptics" and deniers. Quantum mechanical energy exchanges at the molecular levels are hard to grasp (abstract scientific thinking). Our primate political genes though, are programmed to identify and understand the following narrative-type: crooked university professors peddle the "climate change hoax" in order to make trillions of dollars on the carbon credit trading market. In other words, climate scientists are an enemy clique plotting to do "us" in dirty - this is pure primate politics!

A general listing of Authoritarian Personality traits (both leaders and followers)

authoritarian personality traits 

                In general, "classical" authoritarians see the world in black and white terms: "us" versus "them", "Good" versus "Evil". Their perceptions of social groups tends toward stereotypy: all wo/men (blacks, Jews, gays, Muslims..) share a common set of characters. The group one belongs to is more important than one's individuality. In addition, authoritarians demonize the excluded groups they hate: people belonging to out-groups are treated as subhuman, incarnate all evil, plot to enslave the world to their wicked ends.

                I mention the Authoritarian Personality here because it represents a particularly primitive (hence emotionally compelling and "natural") expression of primate politics that is activated in situations of threat and uncertainty. The paranoid narratives of Authoritarians flourish in critical periods of social transition such as the one we are living through today. "Fascistic" paranoid delusional narratives become prevalent - even dominant - myths at times of social breakdown and transformation.

                It is hard to describe how wacky the paranoid delusional worldview can become! To do justice, I can only copy verbatim from a "chemtrails, New World Order conspiracy" website. Hold on t'yer hats, folks, the wind she's goin' t'blow!

"Population "Control," New World Order Style
The Illuminati's idea of Population Control falls into two broad categories:
1. Limiting the size of human societies and monitoring/controlling the movement of individuals within that society, and

2. Intentionally reducing the bulk of the world's population through GENOCIDE via the introduction of orchestrated conflicts, intentionally inserted toxic substances into the air (chemtrails), environment (depleted uranium), water/food supply (GMOs), and bioengineered, weaponized disease organisms (AIDS, Ebola, Bird & Swine Flu, etc.) along with anti-fertility compounds introduced via vaccines and other means of external transmission.
In order to preserve the 'best' of humanity when the supposed 'self-destruction' of the earth takes place around the year 2,000, the JASON Society proposed that a vast network of underground cities be built in order to secure living quarters for the chosen Illuminati elite, high level cooperative politicians, and selected military elements. Underground cities are also co-habitated by extraterrestrial alien groups that the secret government has made treaties with for technology exchange and human-alien hybrid breeding programs. The idea of the earth 'self destructing' around the turn of the century due to overpopulation was perhaps an early cover story for the justification of the underground cities. In the 1950's and 60's, the American public was led to believe that the contiuance of government, in the event of worldwide nuclear war, was a logical reason for undeground facilities, but we now know that the entire Soviet/American cold war and MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) scenario was an orchestrated Illuminati deception to bleed both Russian and American citizens of their wealth in order to finance black budget operations, secret technology developments, underground city construction, genetic engineering projects, time & space travel research, and anti-gravity, flying saucer spacecraft development.
Based on 1989 information, it was claimed that there were at least 75 underground cities in existence below the soil of America interconnected by high speed, frictionless trains called Maglev trains (Magnetic Levitation). The former Atomic Energy Commission had also constructed  22 seperate underground cities for their own use...

....  recommendations for population "control". They included:

1. Birth control (birth prevention and abortion - 43.8 Million babies aborted yearly worldwide.)
2. Sterilization (today includes vaccines) and
3. The introduction of deadly microbes to reduce or otherwise slow the growth of the earth's population.

Bioengineered Diseases
AIDS, Ebola, Gulf War Illness (GWI), and many other "new" diseases were intentionally bioengineered in laboratories that are mostly found in the United States and include the Army's secretive facilities at Ft. Detrick Maryland (2.). Drs. Nancy and Garth Nicholson have done a great deal of  research and investigation into the cause and treatment of Gulf War Illness, since they and their daughter (who was a helicopter flight nurse in the 1991 Gulf War) ALL came down with GWI.  In 1996, the Nichols published a paper which states their deep suspicions that GWI is due to bioengineered pathogens and that a hidden population control agenda appears to be in place.
Some bioengineered pathogens were designed to target certain ethnic groups for elimination. These groups likely include blacks, hispanics, Black Africans, Native Americans, and homosexuals. The preferred Iluminati method to introduce disease is via vaccinations. Tthe HIV virus which causes AIDS was introduced and spread throughout the majority of black populations in Africa via the World Health Organization (WHO) during their mandatory smallpox vaccine campaigns of 1976-1980.

The pathogens which produced Gulf War Illness were introduced to a limited number of Gulf War troops via "special" vaccinations (not recorded on the troop's official vaccination records) for Anthrax and other supposed dangers posed by Saddam Hussein. It was a CIA test run to see how many Gulf troops would succumb to the disease and how quickly they might die off. The results have been somewhat disappointing for the CIA/Illuminati planners. They thought their new little bugs would wipe out a lot more people, a lot faster than it has.."

And so it goes, on and on and on..  Pretty wild, eh?


 Was the death of God a liberation for humanity? Or did it simply blow the doors off hell, liberating all its inhabitants.. Above, a modern degenerate myth, the Aryan Master Race (a degraded form of the Chosen People)

             Which brings us to the central theme of this article: are such degraded forms of mythology related in some way to the "death of God" announced a century and a half ago by the Austrian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche? (See note 1.) Nietzsche's view is contested from various perspectives but it is clear that he was, at the least, merely giving a name to a process of secularization in Western thought that goes back to the Renaissance. That secularization brought us the scientific and technical revolution, the modern concept of citizenry, democracy, the belief in human rights, feminism..The modern world of Progress. However a question remains unanswered for the unbiased observer. If Western thought is no longer guided by Christian theology, who gets to establish the new norms, the new values, the new definition of the Good Life, etc? 

               Religion and culture, claim some anthropologists are social mechanisms which regulate, control and direct human drives and behavior into socially acceptable channels. Religion and culture replace much of the instinctive (genetically programmed) behavior patterns observed in non-human animals. In culture and religion, the human has partially escaped the determinisms of instinct. To some degree, we humans are self-defining, self-determining, self-creating animals. We have, to some degree, escaped the strictures of Darwinian evolution and determine some of the conditions of our own future evolution.

               But what happens when "God" -the dominant cultural and religious system - "dies"-, bcomes inoperant, no longer credible to a growing (and eventually critical) number of people? Certainly, God's death means the end of certainty. It means an interregnum, a period of cultural, spiritual and political anarchy till a new "God" and a new "tables of the Law" rise and once again provide wo/men with meaning, sense, direction.

                In this perspective, the current spate of Conspiracy theories and fake news is the symptom - and the embodiment - of the current state of philosophical, moral and cultural anarchy. These degenerate myths constitute a "regression", in the Freudian sense, to an earlier state of behavioral adaptation. Such states imply that an ecosystem, a society, an organism is experiencing an "existential threat", a life or health threatening situation requiring some sort of creative response (note 2).

                An interesting synchronicity. Just as I was finishing this piece, I received a notice concerning the first article of John Michael Greer's new blog Ecosophia. It treats the same themes I have in pretty much the same way I have above. Such a convergence says something about the zeitgeist - The Spirit of the Age - we inhabit..



.. Nietzsche is concerned about.. relating.. that God is dead in the hearts and minds of his own generation of modern men - killed by an indifference that was itself directly related to a pronounced cultural shift away from faith and towards rationalism and science...

Nietzsche had been raised in an intensely devout and pietistic family atmosphere that he saw as having been unduly restrictive..

As an atheist who saw aspects of the influence of the traditions of christianity within which he grew up as having been regrettable Friedrich Nietzsche tended to welcome what he saw as The Death of God!

For Nietzsche a recognition that God is Dead to his own generation of men and women ought to come as a Joyous Wisdom allowing individuals to lead less guilt-ridden lives in a world that was no longer to be seen as being inherently sinful. He considered that earthly lives could become more joyful, meaningful and "healthy" when not lived within narrow limits set by faith-related concerns for the state of an individual's eternal soul.

Nietzsche seems to be suggesting that the acceptance that God is dead will also involve the ending of long-established standards of morality and of purpose.. the possible emergence of a nihilistic situation where people's lives are not.. constrained by faith-based considerations of morality or.. guided by any faith-related sense of purpose.

What are we now to do?

Given what he saw as the "unbelievability" of the "God-hypothesis" Nietzsche himself seemed to favour the creation of a new set of values "faithful to the earth." This view perhaps being associa[ted] with the possibility of the "Overman" or "Superman."

"I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment..."

Friedrich Nietzsche ~ Thus spoke Zarathustra"

"Regression: a defense mechanism leading to the temporary or long-term reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more [adaptive] way. The defense mechanism of regression, in psychoanalytic theory, occurs when an individual's personality reverts to an earlier stage of development, adopting more childish mannerisms. Psychiatrist Joel Gold suggests that careful use of "ARISE" (Adaptive Regression in the service of the Ego) can sometimes yield creative benefits. To the extent that one is handling thoughts and impulses less like an adult, ARISE involves play, appreciation and primitive pleasures, and imagination."