The Split-brain Universe

An extended Nowa Fantaskyka remix.

The year is 1982. I read Isaac Asimov’s newly-published Foundation’s Edge with a sinking heart. Here is the one of Hard-SF’s Holy Trinity writing— with a straight face, as far as I can tell— about the “consciousness” of rocks and trees and doors, for Chrissakes. Isaac, what happened? I wonder. Conscious rocks? Are you going senile?

No, as it turned out. Asimov had simply discovered physical panpsychism: a school of thought that holds that everything— rocks, trees, electrons, even Donald Trump— is conscious to some degree. The panpsychics regard consciousness as an intrinsic property of matter, like mass and charge and spin. It’s an ancient belief— its roots go all the way back to ancient Greece—but it has recently found new life among consciousness researchers. Asimov was simply ahead of his time.

I’ve always regarded panpsychism as an audacious cop-out. Hanging a sign that says “intrinsic” on one of Nature’s biggest mysteries doesn’t solve anything; it merely sweeps it under the rug. Turns out, though, that I’d never really met audacious before. Not until I read “The Universe in Consciousness” by Bernardo Kastrup, in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Kastrup goes panpsychism one better. He’s not saying that all matter is conscious. He’s saying that all matter is consciousness— that consciousness is all there is, and matter is just one of its manifestations. “Nothing exists outside or independent of cosmic consciousness,” he writes. “The perceivable cosmos is in consciousness, as opposed to being conscious.” Oh, and he also says the whole universe suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder.

It reads like some kind of flaky New Age metaphor. He means it literally, though.

He calls it science.

*

Just as plausible, apparently.

Even on a purely local level, there are reasons to be skeptical of MPS (or DID, as it’s known today: Dissociative Identity Disorder). DID diagnoses tend to spike in the wake of new movies or books about multiple personalities, for example. Many cases don’t show themselves until after the subject has spent time in therapy— generally for some other issue entirely— only to have the alters emerge following nudges and leading questions from therapists whose critical and methodological credentials might not be so rigorous as one would like. And there is the— shall we say questionable nature of certain alternate personalities themselves. One case in the literature reported an alter that identified as a German Shepherd. Another identified— don’t ask me how— as a lobster. (I know what you’re thinking, but this was years before the ascension of Jordan Peterson in the public consciousness.)

When you put this all together with the fact that even normal conscious processes seem to act like a kind of noisy parliament— that we all, to some extent, “talk to ourselves”, all have different facets to our personalities— it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the whole thing didn’t boil down to a bunch of overactive imaginations, being coached by people who really should have known better. Psychic CosPlaying, if you will. This interpretation is popular enough to have its own formal title: the Sociocognitive Model.

There could be a sort of psychiatric Sturgeon’s Law at play here, though; the fact that 90% of such studies are crap doesn’t necessarily mean that all of them are. Brain scans of “possessed” DID bodies show distinctly different profiles than those of professional actors trained to merely behave as though they were: the parts of the brain that lit up in actors are associated with imagination and empathy, while those lighting up in DID patients are involved with stress and fear responses. I’m not entirely convinced— can actors, knowingly faking a condition, really stand in for delusional people who sincerely believe in their affliction? Still, the stats are strong; and it’s hard to argue with a different study in which the visual centers of a sighted person’s brain apparently shut down in a sighted person when a “blind” alter took the controls.

Also let’s not forget the whole split-brain phenomenon. We know that different selves can exist simultaneously within a single brain, at least if it’s been partitioned in some way.

This is the premise upon which Kastrup bases his model of Reality Itself.

*

You’ve probably heard of quantum entanglement. Kastrup argues that entangled systems form a single, integrated, and above all irreducible system. Also that, since everything is ultimately entangled to something else, the entire inanimate universe is “one indivisible whole”, as irreducible as a quark. He argues— let me quote him here directly, so you won’t think I’m making this up—

“that the sole ontological primitive there is is cosmic phenomenal consciousness … Nothing exists outside or independent of cosmic consciousness. Under this interpretation one should say that the cosmos is constituted by phenomenality, as opposed to bearing phenomenality. In other words, here the perceivable cosmos is in consciousness, as opposed to being conscious.”

Why would he invoke such an apparently loopy argument? How are we any further ahead in understanding our consciousness by positing that the universe itself is built from the stuff? Kastrup is trying to reconcile the “combination problem” of bottom-up panpsychism: even if you accept that every particle contains a primitive conscious “essence”, you’re still stuck with explaining how those rudiments combine to form the self-reflective sapience of complex objects like ourselves. Kastrup’s answer is to start at the other end. Instead of positing that consciousness emerges from the very small and working up to sentient beings, why not posit that it’s a property of the universe as a whole and work down?

Well, for one thing, because now you’ve got the opposite problem: rather than having to explain how little particles of proto-consciousness combine to form true sapience, now you have to explain how some universal ubermind splits into separate entities (i.e., if we’re all part of the same cosmic consciousness, why can’t I read your mind? Why do you and I even exist as distinct beings?)

This is where DID comes in. Kastrup claims that the same processes that give rise to multiple personalities in humans also occur at the level of the whole Universe, that all of inanimate “reality” consists of Thought, and its animate components— cats, earthworms, anything existing within a bounded metabolism— are encysted bits of consciousness isolated from the Cosmic Self:

“We, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated alters of cosmic consciousness, surrounded by its thoughts. The inanimate world we see around us is the revealed appearance of these thoughts. The living organisms we share the world with are the revealed appearances of other dissociated alters.”

And what about Reality before the emergence of living organisms?

“I submit that, before its first alter [i.e., separate conscious entity] ever formed, the only phenomenal contents of cosmic consciousness were thoughts.”

In case you’re wondering (and you damn well should be): yes, the Journal of Consciousness Studies is peer-reviewed. Respectable, even. Heavy hitters like David Chalmers and Daniel Dennet appear in its pages. And Kastrup doesn’t just pull claims out of his ass; he cites authorities from Augusto to von Neumann to back up his quantum/cosmic entanglement riff, for example. Personally, I’m not convinced— I think I see inconsistencies in his reasoning— but not being a physicist, what would I know? I haven’t read the authorities he cites, and wouldn’t understand them if I did. This Universal Split-Brain thing reads like Philip K. Dick on a bad day; then again, couldn’t you say the same about Schrödinger’s Cat, or the Many Worlds hypothesis?

Still, reading Kastrup’s paper, I have to keep reminding myself: Peer-reviewed. Respectable. Daniel Dennet.

Of course, repeat that too often and it starts to sound like a religious incantation.

*

To an SF writer, this is obviously a gold mine.

Kastrup’s model is epic creation myth: a formless thinking void, creating sentient beings In Its Image. The idea that Thou Art God (Stranger in a Strange Land, anyone?), that God is everywhere— that part of the paradigm reads like it was lifted beat-for-beat out of the Abrahamic religions. The idea that “The world is imagined” seems lifted from the Dharmic ones.

The roads we might travel from this starting point! Here’s just one: at our local Earthbound scale of reality DID is classed as a pathology, something to be cured. The patient is healthy only when their alters have been reintegrated. Does this scale up? Is the entire universe, as it currently exists, somehow “sick”? Is the reintegration of fragmented alters the only way to cure it, can the Universe only be restored to health only by resorbing all sentient beings back into some primordial pool of Being? Are we the disease, and our eradication the cure?

You may remember that I’m planning to write a concluding volume to the trilogy begun with Blindsight and continued in Echopraxia. I had my own thoughts as to how that story would conclude— but I have to say, Kastrup’s paper has opened doors I never considered before.

It just seems so off-the-wall that— peer-reviewed or not— I don’t know if I could ever sell it in a Hard-SF novel.

…Aaaand We’re Back.

You may  have noticed some breakage here at rifters.com over the past week or so: little black diamonds where punctuation should be, graphics failing to load, broken fonts and formats on some of the Blindopraxia pages.  I think the whole site may have vanished briefly, although I can’t be sure.

Basically, the conjunction of some crappy customer service from my previous ISP (Dreamhost) and what looks to be Canada’s imminent caving on a trade deal that not only builds on all the worst aspects of NAFTA, but also bundles the worst elements of the (back from the dead) TPP, finally inspired me to get off my ass and move this site offshore. I’m kind of ashamed it took me this long.

It’s been untenable for a while now, what with the 5-Eyes policy of you spy on our people and we’ll spy on yours to get around domestic privacy legislation.  But the news filtering out from NAFTA suggests that while Canada bitches and moans about Dairy and sunset Clauses, nobody’s raising a peep about IP rules that w0uld essentially give corporations US-style carte blanche to shut down any site, even in Canada, that they don’t like. (To cite one example: “Notice and Takedown” provisions allow corporations to force the removal of websites merely accused of copyright violation, no evidence required.  A number of activist sites— including OpenMedia and the Electronic Frontier Foundationwere recently hit by DMCA takedown notices alleging that they hosted illegal copies of songs by an Australian musician whose work did not, needless to say, actually appear anywhere on the targeted sites. What does appear on those sites is a lot of editorializing and campaigning against things like NAFTA and the DCMA. It is tiredly ironic that their efforts to fight censorship are being censored using the very techniques they’re trying to raise the alarm about.)

Obviously, North America is no place to run a website if you want the option of speaking either freely or privately.  The EU isn’t looking much better.

Iceland, though.

Here’s a country that has freedom from censorship embedded in its constitution. A country that actually jailed its bankers after the Crash of ’08. A country almost entirely energy self-sufficient (well, except for its fishing fleet), a country with the greenest carbon footprint on the planet, the third-safest nation on the globe for data storage and privacy (after Switzerland and Singapore).

It’s also the place I’d like to end up when global civilization collapses.  I have no actual strategy to move me or my family there just yet, but at least I can move rifters.com. So that’s what I’ve done: moved to the Icelandic hosting service called (please God let it be ironic) 1984.

It hasn’t been a seamless transition. Things got broken during the move; a few things still are. I’m gonna be poking around backstage for a while yet, trying to figure out how the <h1> tag on the Sotala and MilZomb pages got screwed up when they worked just fine back in California. Gremlins may have been involved. But for the most part, we’re up and running again, away from the grubby little paws of Trumps and Trudeaus.

Thunder Thighs, my ass. This is gorgeous.

This is basically a test post to make sure everything’s running as well as I hope. If you’ve made it through all the house-keeping, though, here’s a very cool picture to reward your patience: the cover art for the Polish edition of Freeze-Frame Revolution, by an entity going by the name of Dark Crayon. It is amazing.  I loved it on first sight, and continue to love it even after The BUG remarked that it looked as though Sunday Ahzmundin was being squeezed between Giant Thunder Thighs. Even that could not stop me from loving it.

Also I think I may have misconfigured Google Analytics back in North America. I’m not using it here (another long-overdue transition), but according to the stats on this new 1984 board I’ve been underestimating my web traffic by an order of magnitude.

I should be less humble.

Late-breaking Update [0900 EST]: sometime since “qa” left their lonely comment, it has apparently become impossible to post comments on the ‘crawl. I have no idea what the problem is— at least, I haven’t touched anything backstage in the interim. I’ve reached out to tech support. In the meantime, if any of you have thhe time and inclination, how about trying to post a test comment, and— assuming it fails— dropping me a line via the Contact link to mention the symptoms?

Still a few bugs in the system. Thank you for your patience.

Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 24 Comments

Heads Up/Periscope Down.

Hey Mammals.

Just to let you know, rifters.com may be going dark in the near future, hopefully not for very long. If we’re lucky, you won’t even notice it.

Posted in: Uncategorized by Peter Watts 7 Comments

N.K. Jemisin, Alpha Gal

 

 

…and picking right up from where we left off last week, some of you may remember an ancient post about the Lone Star Tick, whose bite can provoke a fatal hyperallergenic reaction to “alpha-gal” (galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose for the pedants in the audience), a monosaccharide found only in the meat of nonprimate mammals. You may remember cool scenarios in which vegan terrorists gengineer this reaction into biting insects of all sorts, spreading it worldwide and forcing human meat-eaters to choose between giving up meat or eating each other (basically, win-win either way). And if you are lovers of the opera, you may even remember this poster off to the right, a PSA I put together as one of the world-building elements of “Fish To Mars”.

All ancient history now. But alpha gal is the gift that keeps on giving. Just last month, The New York Times published an update on this tick-borne malady (cleverly illustrated with emoji-faces built out of veal cutlets and sausages) which made an interesting claim indeed:

“OUR DISTANT ANCESTORS once made alpha-gal. Understanding why humans don’t could shed light on the meat-allergy mystery Like other mammals, South American monkeys produce alpha-gal. Only Old World monkeys and apes (and humans) have lost the ability to make the sugar. Hence scientists deduce that the change most likely happened after New and Old World primates diverged from each other around 40 million years ago. One explanation for the disappearance of alpha-gal is that it was driven by some catastrophe, a deadly infection that afflicted Old World primates, perhaps, and as a result maybe these distant relatives of ours stopped being able to produce the sugar because doing so conferred an evolutionary advantage. The mutation that eliminated alpha-gal could have improved a primate’s ability to fight off an infection by enabling its immune system to more easily distinguish between its own body and some pathogen with alpha-gal.”

…and I can’t help thinking Hey, didn’t Blindopraxia’s vampires and their protocadherin dependency end up at the same point, but for opposite reasons? Both vampires and a post-tickular Humanity resort to eating fellow primates— but one does so because no other prey contains a vital substance, while the other does so because all other prey contain a toxic substance.

It’s almost too symmetrical.

So now, I’m thinking we might have an origin story for vampires. Maybe what bootstrapped the subspecies was an epidemic, something like this postulated alpha-gal pathogen but more recent. Something that knocked out protocadherin synthesis in a small, isolated population of hominins, most of which— having survived the epidemic— found themselves dying off for lack of that necessary protein.  All but a few dispersers, who made it out of their isolated refuge and back into the mainstream where their unsuspecting cousins bred and fed, all unsuspecting…

Don’t really know yet how that might fit into the overall plot. Just starting to think about it. Maybe no more than a bit of background ambiance, throwaway background for readers to geek out over if so inclined. Or maybe something more— because once you know how vampires originally got made, you’re one step closer to being able to unmake them…

Apparently there's also a sequel...

Apparently there’s also a sequel…

Or I might just try to resurrect my idea for the big glossy hardcover Coffee Table Book— The Proceedings of the Second Biennial Conference on the Biology and Evolution of Vampires— that I always wanted to pattern after that big best-selling tome on the natural history of Gnomes that was all the rage back in the seventies. The book that has, so far at least, never failed to make agents and editors alike roll their eyes and tell me to fuck off when I pitch it to them…

*

Some of you are probably wondering how N.K. Jemisin fits into all of this.

She doesn’t exactly. Not into the vampire stuff anyway, although I suppose if you were given to terrible puns you could call her an Alpha Gal in her own right (what with three consecutive Best-Novel Hugos and all). But she is the editor of the 2018 Edition of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, and she did think enough of “ZeroS” to include it in that volume. And HMH let us off the leash just yesterday, and encouraged us to announce it to all and sundry. So, as a postscript, that is what I’m doing.

 

 

That’s four best-of-year collections “ZeroS” has made it into, which is nice by any standards. At the same time, the other three are edited by folks I’ve known and dealt with in the past. So it’s especially nice to have made it onto Jemisin’s radar— and if I might drop one more name, it’s also humbling to end up in the same Table of Contents as Samuel Delany.

I’ve been trying to write like that guy since I was a teenager.

Posted in: biology, Omniscience, writing news by Peter Watts 19 Comments

The Sulfide Solution. (Also, Who Sent Me All These Wombats?)

Before we get started: does anyone know anything about these?

IMG_3587

They appeared on my doorstep a few days ago, from Australia. No card, no clue. They’re pretty awesome, but they’re also a bit suspicious: I keep remembering that giant wooden rabbit rolling up to the door of the Frawnsh Castle in Holy Grail. Who knows what pathogens or circuitry could be lurking behind these endearing wooden beasties?

Anyone?

*

A paper came out in Aging last month, offered a bit of hope to those of us who don’t want to, you know, die. Eva Latorre et al have managed to “reverse aging” in human skin cells. I put that in quotes because it may not quite be true, despite the fact that one of the actual researchers used those words in a commentary on the subject; the actual paper states that the treatment

“has a senostatic, rather than a senolytic or a proliferation-inducing function in the majority of senescent cells in the culture.”

In other words, it doesn’t reboot old cells into full-on mitosis mode; just makes them more metabolically youthful (and the paper leaves open the possibility that maybe they would have started proliferating again but for the “higher mutational load” of older cells). So at the very least, we’ve got senescent cells acting young. They regain functions lost to age and entropy: notably, alternative splicing— that trick whereby a single gene gets repurposed in different sequences for the synthesis of multiple proteins— reattains its youthful vigor. If the process ports to other cell types, Latorre et al cautiously speculate that their technique

“may have therapeutic potential in the future for extension of health span and treatment of age-related diseases… treatment may be able to retard, as well as partially reverse senescence.”

We’re talking life extension here, folks. We’re talking another hopeful step on the road to immortality. And they did it all with hydrogen sulfide.

"Judge me by my size, do you?"

“Judge me by my size, do you? Humph! And well you do not! For my ally is The Farts!””

That surprised me. I’d always assumed H2S was a bad thing for us eukaryotes: poisonous, corrosive, and flammable, a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism that smells like farts[1]. But it turns out it exists in our own bodies, turns out we actually produce the stuff ourselves. It’s beneficial in small quantities; they call it a “gasotransmitter” (along with, believe it or not, carbon monoxide). Apparently H2S helps protect stressed cells from damage. It even has anticancer properties.

Naturally, the paper’s got a fair bit of attention in the popular science press. There’s one thing that none of those articles have mentioned, though. This is not the first time hydrogen sulfide has proven useful in a medical— even in a life-extension— context. Way back in 2005, Blackstone et al exposed mice to 80ppm H2S and reduced their metabolic rate by 90%, with no ill effects. So now we have a simple compound, endogenously produced, which is instrumental both in extending life and in suspending animation.

Or, if you want to be lurid about it, in conferring “immortality” and inducing an undead state.

Oh, you know who this guy is, don't you? From Danil Krivoruchko and his fellow geniuses over at Blindsight.space.

Oh, you know who this guy is, don’t you? From Danil Krivoruchko and his fellow geniuses over at Blindsight.space.

Back when I was writing Blindsight I didn’t put a lot of thought into the mechanism of vampire hibernation. There wasn’t any real need; everything from chipmunks to lungfish go dormant here in real life, so it’s not like I had to design a novel mechanism from the ground up. Just throw in a couple of offhand references to real-world hibernation peptides and leave it at that.

But this dumb, simple molecule—  one ess, two aitches— is looking so damn useful all of a sudden. We already have the pathways, the mechanisms are established— and there are implications to be considered. If vampires have ramped up their H2S pathways, it follows that they’ll have an abnormally high tolerance to sulfide toxicity. Maybe this even implies tolerance to CO and a bunch of other toxic gases. Vampires could be immune to chemical weapons.

This dumb little molecule is starting to inform elements of actual plot.

And I do have another book to write in this series…


[1] Technically, farts smell like H2S, but you know what I mean.

Posted in: biology, blindsight, Omniscience by Peter Watts 23 Comments

HemiHive, in Hiding

If you’ve been following my writing for any length of time, you’ll know how fascinated I am by Krista and Tatiana Hogan, of British Columbia. I’ve cited them in Echopraxia’s end notes, described them in online essays; if you caught my talk at Pyrkon last year you might remember me wittering on about them in my rejoinder to Elon Musk’s aspirations for “neural dust”.

Not entirely sure who gets the photo credit, but it's someone at the CBC so it's taxpayer-funded.

Not entirely sure who gets the photo credit, but it’s someone at the CBC so it’s taxpayer-funded.

Can you blame me? A pair of conjoined twins, fused at the brain? A unique cable of neurons— a thalamic bridge— wiring those brains together, the same way the corpus callosum connects the cerebral hemispheres in your own head? Two people who can see through each others eyes, feel and taste what the other does, share motor control of their limbs— most remarkably, communicate mind-to-mind without speaking? Is it any wonder that at least one neuroscientist has described the twins as “a new life form”?

If the Hogans don’t capture your imagination, you’re dead inside. I’ve been following those two from almost the day they were born in 2006 (the year Blindsight came out— and man, how that book could have changed if they’d been born just a few years earlier.) I’ve been trying to, anyway.

They don’t make it easy.

Bits and pieces trickle out now and then. Profiles in the New York Times and Macleans. Puff-piece documentaries from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, heavy on saccharine human-interest and cutesy music, light on science. Eleven years on, the public domain will tell you that Krista processes input from three legs and one arm, while Tatiana processes input from three arms and one leg. We know that they’re only halfway to being a true hive mind, because there are still two of them in there; the thalamic bridge carries lower bandwidth than a corpus callosum, and is located down in the basement with the sensory cables. (We can only speculate what kind of singular conscious being we’d be dealing with if the pipe had been fatter, mounted higher in the brain.) We know they share thoughts without speaking, conspire nonverbally to commit practical jokes for example (although not in complete silence; apparently a fair amount of giggling is involved). The twins call it “talking in our heads”. Back in 2013 one of their neurologists opined that “they haven’t yet shown us” whether they share thoughts as well as sensory experience, but neurons fire the same way whether they’re transmitting sensation or abstraction; given all the behavioral evidence I’d say the onus is on the naysayers to prove that thoughts aren’t being transmitted.

We know they’re diabetic and epileptic. We know they’re cognitively delayed. We know that their emotions are always in sync; whatever chemicals provoke joy or grief or anger cruise through that conjoined system without regard for which brain produced them. We know Krista likes ketchup and Tatiana doesn’t. We know— and if we don’t, you can be sure the documentarians at CBC will hammer the point home at least twice more before the next commercial break— that they’re God’s Little Fucking Miracles.

If you look closely at the video footage, you can glean a bit more. The twins never say “we”. I frequently heard one or the other refer to “my sister”, but if they ever referred to each other by name, that never made it into the broadcast edit. They sometimes refer to each other as “I”. They must have a really interesting sense of personal identity, at the very least.

But that’s about it. After eleven years, this is all we get.

We’re told about MRI scans, but we never get to see any actual results from one. (The most recent documentary, from just last year, shows the twins on their way to an MRI only to cut away before they get there; I mean, how do twins conjoined at a seventy-degree angle even fit into one of those machines?) There are plenty of Hogan references in the philosophical literature (for obvious reasons), and even the legal literature (for more obscure ones: one paper delves into how best to punish conjoined twins when only one of them has been convicted of committing a crime). They’re all over popular science and news sites. Some idiot with the Intelligent Design movement has even used the Hogans to try and put lipstick on the long-discredited pig of dualism (i.e., souls).

But actual neurological findings from these twins? Scientific papers? Google Scholar returns a single article, from a 2012 issue of the “University of British Columbia’s Undergraduate Journal of Psychology”— a student publication. Even that piece is mainly a review of craniopagus twins in the medical literature, with a couple of pages squeeing about How Much The Hogan Twins Can Teach Us tacked onto the end. A 2011 NYT article describes research showing that each twin can process visual signals from the other’s eyes, then admits that the results were not published. And that’s it.

Eleven years after the birth of the most neurologically remarkable, philosophically mind-blowing, transhumanistically-relevant being on the planet, we have nothing but pop-sci puff pieces and squishy documentaries to show for it. Are we really supposed to believe that in over a decade no one has done the studies, collected the data, gained any insights about literal brain-to-brain communication, beyond these fuzzy generalities?

I for one don’t buy that for a second. These neuroscientists smiling at us from the screen— Douglas Cochrane, Juliette Hukin— they know what they’ve got. Maybe they’ve discovered something so horrific about the nature of Humanity that they’re afraid to reveal it, for fear of outrage and widespread panic. That would be cool.

More likely, though, they’re just biding their time; sitting on an ever-growing trove of data that will redefine and quantify the very nature of what it is to be a sapient being. They’re just not going to share it with the rest of us until they’ve finished polishing their Nobel acceptance speeches. Maybe I can’t blame them. Maybe I’d even do the same in their place.

Still. The wait is driving me crazy.

And if any of you are on the inside, I’d kill for a glimpse of an MRI.

Posted in: neuro, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 65 Comments

Extinction and the Reset Button

 

 

I’ve just finished reading The Re-origin of Species, by Torill Kornfeldt (2016 in the original Swedish). The English translation is just barely out in Australia and the UK; here in North America it’s slated for a November release. (I scored an early copy from a publisher eager for blurbs.) Re-origin is about the burgeoning de-extinction— well, movement seems too coherent a term for what appears to be a few dozen labs scattered around the world, more often than not operating on shoestrings budgets and shoehorned in around the edges of other more respectable projects, laboring towards goals that range from transmuting chickens into velociraptors all the way over to inundating parking lots with bird shit. Maybe cause. Maybe revolution.

Anyway, it’s a good book. It was easy to blurb. I learned a lot of new stuff, and was reminded about a lot of old stuff— because as it happens, I wrote a column for Nowa Fantastyka on this very subject, way back in 2014. Strangely I can’t find it anywhere on the ‘crawl; I don’t think I ever recycled it here.

Until now.

 

The Reset Button

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix, now with Recent Insights!)

Resurrection is a wonderful thing in video games.  No matter how many zombies eat your brains, no matter how many skyscrapers fall on you, no matter how many times the Big Daddy smacks you across the room with skeleton-shattering force, you’re always back in the game for the price of a 30-second reload and the few minutes since your last save. Sure, it may make you a bit reckless— you end up taking chances and trying insane Hail-Mary strategies you’d never risk in real life— but it’s only a game, right?  And what’s the alternative: being cautious, being careful? Acting as though one life is all you’ll ever have? Give me backups, every time. When immersed in a video game, the Reset button is a godsend.

In real life, maybe not so much.

It’s been nearly thirty years since Gregory Benford first advocated the collection of DNA from the world’s endangered species, a genetic Noah’s Ark to serve as a fallback measure for those inevitable and myriad cases when conservation didn’t work (or more likely, when it wasn’t even attempted). It may have seemed fringe then— the essay actually appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction— but these days, so-called “de-extinction” is all over the news. We’re bringing back the mammoth and the passenger pigeon  (something like them, anyway). We’ve already resurrected the Pyrenean ibex— for seven minutes at least, before its collapsed lungs caused it to suffocate in agony. England’s Frozen Ark project is on track to store DNA samples from twenty thousand of the world’s most endangered animals; Norway maintains a vast underground seed vault to do the same for crops. The New York Times had an extensive profile of the whole de-extinction thing in their Sunday Edition a few years back. De-extinction is all over TEDx.

As you might imagine, the very premise is controversial (back in 2014 PLoS Biology reviewed the debate swirling around the subject; it swirls still[1]). Proponents point out the myriad sins that can be undone, the vital ecological nodes that can be restored. The dodo, the sabre-tooth cat, all those species we’ve wiped out over the centuries: brought back not from the brink, but from the very grave. Detractors point to items on their own lists: the thing that comes back won’t be the same as the thing that went away, for one thing. The need to gestate the resurrectee within the womb of a related (non-extinct) creature introduces a host of developmental complications; the injection of its nuclear DNA into the egg of a living relative means that its mitochondrial DNA will belong to the extant mother, not the extinct father. We wouldn’t be bringing back the dead, some argue; we’d be creating some new hybrid of extinct and extant, some bastard fusion never before seen on the planet.

Others point out that ecosystems which have equilibriated to some new state might be thrown out of kilter all over again by the reintroduction of long-absent species (how would the Arctic respond to the reappearance of thousands of woolly mammoths stomping across the tundra?). And what about the ethics of bringing something back using techniques which only work in once in a while? What about the suffering and death inflicted upon all those also-rans who die convulsing at birth because their parts didn’t link up the right way? And perhaps the most profound misgiving: if extinction isn’t forever, why even worry about it? If we wipe something out, we can just hit the reset button; bring it back again.

I’m not convinced by the Hybrid objection. The point of de-extinction is not to recreate a pristine snapshot of the past, but to restore functional ecological relationships; if an elephant-mammoth hybrid occupies the same niche as a purebred mammoth once did, who cares about racial purity? And the Ethics Argument seems legitimate only in terms of the current state-of-the-art, which is bound to improve. Arguing that we shouldn’t ever use these techniques because they cause pain and suffering today is tantamount to arguing against cell phones because you can’t fit a rotary dialer into your pocket.

As for the disruptive effect of of reintroducing old species into extant ecosystems— well, that’s actually the point of the exercise. Extant ecosystems— impoverished, weedy— could benefit from a bit of disruption. Adding predators to a system changes the behavior of the herbivores, motivates them to avoid some areas and frequent others; this allows the untouched patches to go their own way, increasing the overall dimensionality of the habitat. Massive storms of resurrected passenger pigeons would process and redistribute seeds and nutrients all over the place (including your windshield, but we all have to make sacrifices). Mammoths— get this— mammoths would knock over trees, keep forests in check, and allow more productive steppe-lands to make a comeback. (Out in Siberia, even as we speak— according to Kornfeldt’s book— Soviet biologists are joyriding around in an old armored Soviet personnel carrier, bashing into trees as a kind of ecological mammoth-surrogate.)

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

The most mind-boggling ecological justification for bringing back mammoths, though, has to be the claim that they could help mitigate climate change. We’re in for a world of hurt when the carbon currently locked in the melting permafrost gets out, you see; and one way to slow that melting is to reduce the insulative effect of the snow that shelters the ground from the bitter cold of Arctic winters. And one way to do that is— wait for it— trample the snow flat under the piledriver feet of thousands upon thousands of mammoths, resurgent upon the Arctic landscapes of Canada and Russia.

(Hey, I’m not saying I buy it. I’m just saying people have put it out there. Apparently they’ve even run the numbers.)

The Reset Argument carries more weight for me— but not because of some video-game scenario where we boot up endless backups to keep things humming along. My fear is the exact opposite— because at some point, extinction won’t be such a big deal any more. So we’ve wiped out another species. So what? Just squirt a dab of DNA from the dearly departed into an egg from a close relative, roll the stone away, command Lazarus to come forth. As one of Blindsight‘s epigraphs puts it: “Species used to go extinct.  Now they go on hiatus.” Nothing dies forever. We can bring it back again, any time we feel like it.

Just not today.

The economy’s a bit weak right now, you see. The mortgage bubble looks like it might burst again; wouldn’t want to start something and then run out of funding halfway through, would we? Or maybe we should wait until we know a bit more about how climate change is going to rearrange our coastlines— no point in bringing back the Florida panther if its habitat is going to be wiped out by rising sea levels anyway. But no problems, no hurry; we have the technology. We’ll get around to it. Eventually.

Here in the real world, I fear, the natural tendency to restore from backup will be the exact opposite of what it is in Fallout or Witcher 3. It’s not that we’ll hit the Reset button too often. It’s that— complacent and comfortable in the knowledge that it’s always there— we won’t use it at all.


 

[1] Be sure to read the comments, in which the scientist Powledge takes her shots at fires back a few of his own.

Posted in: biology, In praise of biocide by Peter Watts 12 Comments

The Man Behind the Infodump: Denis Lynn, 1947-2018.

There’s a chapter three-quarters of the way through Maelstrom— “Mug Shot”, it’s called. It’s an executive summary of the apocalyptic microbe βehemoth.  It contains such gems as

βehemoth enters the cell via receptor-mediated endocytosis; once inside it breaks down the phagosomal membrane prior to lysis, using a 532-amino listeriolysin analog. βehemoth then competes with the host cell for nutrients. Host death can occur from any of a several dozen proximal causes including…

It goes on like that for almost four pages. Some might even say it stops the plot dead, but after two decades I still kinda like it. Maybe the issue it addresses would only ever occur to one reader in ten thousand— assuming I even had ten thousand readers— but that’s what makes this SF hard, right? Respect for the science. Respect for the fine print. Coming up with cell entry via receptor-mediated endocytosis (thanks to its Blachford genes, βehemoth can fool steroid receptors on the host cell membrane) is actually something to take pride in.

The Man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

The man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

Or it would be, if I’d come up with it myself. As it is, I have to thank a dude called Denis Lyn for making me even think about it in the first place.

Denis died a couple of weeks ago. Apparently he was collecting samples from a tide pool out on the west coast and a freak wave took him out, which makes no fucking sense whatsoever. He was 71.

Denis assumed a faculty position at the University of Guelph about the same time I arrived there as a student. Rumors kicking around the department said that just a few years earlier he’d been a real hippie— hair down to his ass, marched on Washington at the height of the Viet Nam protests. By the time I met him, though, the man was Dr. Ciliate: he went on to be President of the International Society of Protistologists, and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology. He was an impossibly nice, generous, helpful guy, strangely out of place in a department loaded with backstabbers and infighters. (At least one online memorializer remarked that they’d never heard Denis utter an unkind word about anyone. I can’t say the same; down at the St. Andrews field course one summer, upon hearing that UoG’s widely reviled president Donald “Ducky” Forster had snuffed it, Denis raised his beer and softly toasted “Ding dong, the Duck is Dead!”. Honestly, though, that only made me like him more.)

I fell out of touch with him when I headed west to do my Ph.D. Fell out of touch with pretty much everyone else when political bullshit sent me screaming from academia entirely.  But Denis looked me up when the release of Starfish was imminent— a mutual friend had pointed him to the first home-built edition of this very website— and I, of course, didn’t hesitate to ask if I could pick his brain about the sequel. And of course he said yes. And his responses to my (frankly naïve) thoughts about my fake microbe were, well…

… what happens once the vesicle is internalized?  Usually, these vesicles are destined for the GERL pathway (Golgi, Endoplasmic Reticulum, Lysosome) and end up fusing with lysosomes and digestion occurs.  Can B subvert the signal molecules on the outside (=cytoplasmic side) of the vesicle so that the vesicles don’t fuse with lysosomes?  This would be a trick much like Toxoplasma uses to survive in the parasitiphorous vesicle…

…detailed.  The man also sent me a free copy of Lodish et al‘s Molecular Cell Biology— a real doorstop, 1400 pages. Twenty years later I still use it.

Denis’s last email to me was sent on January 21, 2002.  It ends: “P.S. I wouldn’t turn down a beer even in the daytime, but NOT BEFORE 1130h.”

I don’t remember if we ever had that beer. All I know is, that’s the last documented contact I had with him. After that he retired from Guelph, moved to the west coast, became an adjunct professor at UBC. And got killed, absurdly, by a stupid wave while sampling stupid mussels from a tide pool, leaving our species— by his absence— just a tiny bit more deserving of extinction.

I can’t claim to have ever been close to the man. That’s kind of my point, though; far as he was concerned I was just another dumb student passing through the system— ultimately, someone who didn’t even stay in the system— and still he bent over backward to lend a hand. He was that way to everyone. Now that he’s gone, I think it’s kind of cool that a teensy bit of his essence has been uploaded into Maelstrom.

And if you find that maudlin, well, I can just say fuck you. Because Denis Lynn never would.

Posted in: eulogy by Peter Watts 4 Comments

Three Interviews and a Book Launch

For those of you who didn’t already see this over on Facebook, or who haven’t noticed it on the inconspicuous little “Upcoming Appearances” list to the right: Freeze-Frame Revolution is getting an official launch at Toronto’s premiere SF bookstore, Bakka-Phoenix. The announcement on the BP site sets the launch to both June 6 and June 23rd. I’m assuming that first date is a typo (at least, if it isn’t, I’ve missed my own novella-launch so never mind). In either case the time is 3pm.

I will be there, as will various snacks and nonalcoholic beverages.  As will Ben Eldridge, the dude responsible for last year’s Space Vampires symposium at U of T, who has once again flown all the way from Australia to introduce me and possibly interview me and hopefully help me find a short excerpt to read which 1) I haven’t posted here,  and which 2) doesn’t give away too much of the plot. The man is insane. With a hundred more like him I could probably topple the US government.

Anyway: 84 Harbord Street, Toronto. 3pm. Bring your friends. Bribe your enemies. I’m always worried no one’s gonna show up at these things.

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In related news, I’m doing a few interviews concurrent with this new release. A Q&A with Paul Semel recently went live over here: Paul appears to be an unusually perceptive and intelligent dude, as evidenced by his opening observation that I am a warm and caring person. I’ll be prepping for a Skype interview with Wired pretty much the moment I finish uploading this post. And just this morning I got the first of an ongoing series of questions from Erwann Perchoc over in France, for an interview in BiFrost so extensive and personal that it will apparently take months to conduct:

“When one reads your stories and novels, one might picture you as a misanthropic and aloof person. Having the pleasure to met you—though briefly—at Utopiales a few years back, I saw that it was only an impression. So, before delving into your works, I’d like to ask you a few questions about you in order to dispel this impression…

How was your childhood?”

I’m thinking maybe the set-up was ironic. Either that or “dispel” doesn’t mean what he thinks it means…

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Finally: a question for my Russian readers.  Does anyone know what this Starfish cover hails from?

 

Is it a legit edition? Is it bootleg? I’m only familiar with cover art for one Russian Starfish and it’s, well, this:

russian-starfish

I have to admit the first illo is somewhat more evocative of the actual novel. I just don’t know if it’s real (although it definitely should be).

Anyone?

Posted in: art on ink, interviews, public interface by Peter Watts 16 Comments

The Freeze-Frame AMA.

Last-minute Editorial Update: It’s actually happening at noon. Which is 44 minutes from when I’m typing this.

I suppose I should have mentioned that sooner…

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I’m doing another one of these Reddit AMA thingies next Wednesday.  Prior to that event, I’m supposed to post some kind of evidence that I am not, for example, Hilary Clinton who has seized Peter Watts’s online identity in an attempt to damage his credibility with false posts.

Hopefully this will suffice:

PW-AMA

If not, here’s the introductory passage I dashed off while dabbing Polysporin on my many cuts and bruises:

I’m Peter Watts. This is my second run at one of these AMA things (the first was back in 2014). Tachyon set this up to promote The Freeze-Frame Revolution, but that’s only one novella set in a larger sequence so you might want to wander a bit further afield. For example, I have a complex relationship with raccoons. I am a convicted tewwowist in the State of Michigan. I have a big scar on my right leg. I am part of a team working on a Norwegian Metal Science Opera about sending marbled lungfish to Mars, and the co-discoverer of Dark energy keeps screwing up my autocannibalism scene by inventing radical new spaceflight technology.

Really, the field is wide open. So.

AMA.WR.

Now that it’s all on the official record, I’ll forward it to Reddit so they’ll know I’m serious.  Or at least, who I say I am.  Then, I guess, we wait until Wednesday.

See you then.

Posted in: interviews, public interface by Peter Watts 20 Comments