“It wasn’t just racists who voted to leave Europe…. Cunts did as well.” – Comedian, Stewart Lee, 2016
Are we alone in deep time?
“We’re used to imagining extinct civilizations in terms of the sunken statues and subterranean ruins. These kinds of artifacts of previous societies are fine if you’re only interested in timescales of a few thousands of years. But once you roll the clock back to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of years, things get more complicated.”
Astrophysicist, Adam Frank poses an interesting question in an article in The Atlantic this month, based on a “scientific” paper published in collaboration with Dr Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in the International Journal of Astrobiology.
In view of the enormous scale of geological time in which anything could be hidden, the poverty of the fossil record and the blink of an eye during which Mankind has existed, could there ever have been a previous industrial civilization on Earth comparable to our own, perhaps millions of years ago – since when, all physical traces of skyscrapers, roads, drive-thru McDonalds, discarded iPhones and other artifacts would have been eliminated by the churnover of the ever self-renewing surface of the planet grinding everything to dust and squishing it down to rock? If there was, how would we know?
Well, it seems the answer lies in the chemical trace elements their activities would have left as a distinctive layer in the ancient rocks, deep down. And yes (spoiler alert), there may be some. Or maybe not….
As with much breakthrough science, the question arose out of a casual conversation Frank was having with Schmidt one day about the possibility of finding traces of life on other planets, given that there is some mystery about why we haven’t yet found evidence of aliens “out there”, given the ever-growing realization that other viable planets exist in their billions.
Maybe we’re too late, and their own civilizations have destroyed them, in much the same way ours is about to destroy us.
In just the way a civilization on earth ten, twenty, fifty million years ago – or even during the age of dinosaurs, 250 to 65 million years ago – might have destroyed itself, possibly many times over, through overconsumption, climate change or catastrophic loss of the primary resource-base. (The theory seems to me to ignore the bounceback factor evident in the fall and rise of all known human societies. Maybe there wasn’t one.)
Frank and Schmidt have named it the Silurian hypothesis, after the intelligent lizard-beings of Dr Who, and offer an interesting range of possible chemical traces that have been detected, or that might well be detected if searched for, that could be evidence of ancient technologies in action.
For example, looking at what is about to kill humans off as the dominant species, there is CO2, traces of which are found in core samples. There is plentiful evidence linking increases in atmospheric CO2 to “dead ocean” events, such as are beginning to alarm modern oceanographers, where a complete lack of oxygen due to warming water has triggered ecological collapse and mass extinctions. The cause of past atmospheric changes was most probably natural seismicity or perhaps a global conflagration, but there is an outside possibility of species-induced warming.
The difference being, almost all of those extinctions in the fossil record (and it’s the “dead ocean” events that precipitated the billions of tonnes of dead animal and plant matter that are the basis of the carboniferous fossil fuels we are burning so recklessly today) took place over thousands of years. We’re managing it in under three hundred – unless you add in the pretty negligible effects of the previous five thousand years of “slash and burn” agriculture.
Your Uncle Bogler, as you might expect, being no scientist at all, has some thoughts to throw in the pot.
Firstly, what is meant by a “civilization”? Does it have to be industrial?
Comparison of the technological and scientific paradigm in the early 21st century with that of the Greeks and the Romans between 1500 and 2500 years ago, the Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations and the Chinese, reaching back a further few centuries, reveals many similar features as well as the obvious differences: constructed habitation, agriculture, animal husbandry and the storage of surpluses enabling settled communities, wheeled (animal-drawn) transportation leading to the creation of roads; writing, mathematics, medicine, representative art, investigative philosophy, materials science including metallurgy, common belief structures including faith in the supernatural, funerary practices, transcontinental and oceanic trade, education, money, taxation, representative democracy, the manufacture of luxury goods for consumption by hierarchical elites – constant, unremitting warfare.
All of those features are with us today.
Motive power until the late 18th century CE was provided by wind and water or by animal and human drudgery – muscle power – before being replaced by steam. Weaponry has become more deadly. Combustion culture is still with us in the form of cars, factories, public lighting and power-plant. Communications technology and the mass distribution of images and information, together with automated systems for trade and transportation, date only from the past 250 or so years, and until quite recently (before we started reverting to the old primitive methods: wind, sun and water) were entirely dependent on generating energy from finite resources at the risk of dangerously altering the climate; a threat that has possibly slipped beyond our control.
The combustion engine/electronic communications aspect of our “civilization” was entirely denied to those earlier societies I have mentioned (there were others: no archaeo-botanist now thinks the jungles of Amazonia and Cambodia are primeval ecosystems), but no-one denies them the right to be known as “civilized”.
If you think of a hypothetical society mainly dependent on bananas – the leaves and plant stems used for clothing and construction, the fruit for food, the skins for shoes (joke) then it is quite easy to imagine what would happen to the people if disease or drought suddenly destroyed the plantations. Does their fragility make them any less “civilized”?
So where is the line drawn between “advanced” and “primitive”?
The management of available resources is the main indicator of the level of civilization a society, whether human or otherwise, can attain. In which case we can safely include under the banner of civilization any human society that rises above mere subsistence in terms of its sustainability of organization, the degree of intercommunicability and physical security it may offer its members. That would include, for instance, the plains Indians of North America, the remnant tribes of the Mato Grosso, the aborigine of Australia or the headhunters of the highlands of Borneo, all of whom sustained their way of life for millennia. (Let’s not forget the headhunters of Celtic Wales, circa 50 BCE!).
All are in most senses civilizations. The argument perhaps rests on what degree of civilization produces the telltale traces of its past existence that are required as evidence after millions of years?
For, as Frank points out, the only known part of the planet that has remained unchanged and in plain view for more than 1.5 million years is one small plateau in the Negev desert of Israel. Everywhere else that’s as old has been turned over and plowed under, drowned or pushed up into mountains by the drifting continents, tectonic uplift, earthquakes, volcanoes, wind and rain, shifting sands and changing sea levels.
Frank’s article speculates poignantly on what geologists will find of us in ten million years’ time? Just a thin layer of imperishable plastics waste, he suggests. Embedded within it, Beethoven’s late quartets.
Indeed, all physical evidence of a highly developed, technological civilization based on fossil-fuel and electric (or some other, unknown) motive power dating from millions of years ago would by now exist only as a few trace elements layered deep in the rocks. It would have had to disappear sufficiently long ago for the carboniferous fuel deposits we depend on to have re-formed, at least about 30 million years. What chance would a nomadic tribal society or one building with natural materials – mud and thatch – communicating perhaps by telepathy, have of letting us know of their past existence? (the same obviously goes for other worlds.)
Your Uncle Bogler has one other answer:
It’s in the genes, silly scientists!
Could sheep possibly be the descendants of a “higher” civilization? It seems absurd.
You need to get out from behind your PhD firewalls and apply a bit of eclecticism to your geophysical researches and paleohistorical speculations. Or talk to a behaviorist. Try, for instance, keeping sheep.
Remaining traces of an earlier civilization predating even our mammalian ancestors, whose rise began 65 million years ago as the planet recovered from the near-terminal Chicxulub meteor collision and the age of dinosaurs abruptly ended, might be buried in our current behaviors, many of which are predicated on the basic ideas of social organization and resource management required of all civilizations.
The planet has gotten through a wide variety of climatic conditions, life-changing extremes and profound alterations in habitat, that have steered all the organisms we currently know from there to where we are now, with a lot of sacrifices along the way; and produced millions of viable species – any one of which could, for a few hundred thousand years at least, our “pinprick in geological time”, have been the proto-civilizers we are hunting for.
Just look at how many goes the planet had, to produce Homo sapiens from a range of hominid options; and all in just a couple of million years.
But let’s start with something simpler.
From keeping just a few sheep, I discovered two things about them that might unexpectedly point to inherited civilizational traits, masked by our methods of husbandry. They have hunting instincts, together with considerable cunning; and they seek shelter (a desire they are seldom granted under the pastoral management system we have devised for them over millennia. They didn’t evolve that themselves!).
Two common traits of primitive civilization.
In the first instance, while I was feeding corn to our hens, the sheep (who were allowed in the yard) would try to steal the food. After a few goes that resulted in them being chased away, they devised a system whereby one sheep would make a lunge for the corn while the others hid behind the stable. While I was chasing the miscreant away, the others would dash out and steal the corn.
In the second instance, when kept in a paddock where there was an old, disused pig ark, the sheep at night would herd their lambs into the back of the structure and then block the open doorway with their own bodies, to keep foxes out.
This certainly does not sound like the stupid creatures of myth; but let’s not forget too, that sheep are self-organizing into tribes with strong social bonds, have dominant leaders, a good-as-human ability to recognize individuals in the flock; while their young engage in imaginative play – including races and dominance games like “king of the castle”. They are not just the cud-chewing, barely sentient, toothsome fleecy creatures we have bred them to be.
The question is, are these archetypal forms of behavior evidence of ascending-dominant, or decadent-recessive genetic factors? Are they evidence of newly acquired proto-civilizational skills, that are slowly evolving – or the residual characteristics possibly of past modes of living, that have been lost through evolution and outbreeding from their ancestral heritage?
What would a more advanced civilization make of humanity only a few hundred years after a global nuclear war? Would they believe these primitives once walked on the moon, explored the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and bio-engineered new organs?
Could sheep – among many species, including ourselves – possibly be the descendants of a “higher” civilization? It seems absurd. But then, go back far enough in time and sheep weren’t sheep. In a sense they are a new species, artificially created by Man through selective breeding. Why do we constantly imagine that evolution invariably progresses towards “higher”, more complex systems? It’s trial-and-error.
The same questions could be asked of animals like squirrels, that store food against hard times – and can quickly work out complex ways of getting to it – or birds, the living descendants of dinosaurs. Many behavioral traits shown by nonhuman animals do relate to civilizational behaviors in modern Man and might therefore have originated with our long-ago common ancestors.
Just as we do, for instance, birds build nests to facilitate the organizational requirements of breeding and rearing their young with a greater probability of species survival than merely dumping them on the bare ground.
Like us, they have developed elaborate courtship rituals and co-operative social organization. They teach their young to fly, and pair-bond – sometimes for life.
Some are tool-users and problem-solvers. Some are capable of sophisticated mimicry of sounds, including human speech, in addition to broadcasting a wide range of calls understood by other birds as warnings, invitations and the creation of “eruv”-style bounded territories.
They have advanced navigational skills we have lost, and practice the avian equivalent of transhumance, moving seasonally over great distances to new feeding grounds and returning unerringly to their breeding places.
Were these behaviors more or less developed in the good old dinosaur days, possibly? Could they be surviving traces of past proto-civilizations, rather than mere adaptations? What might have been the social and environmental imperatives that initially drove those common behaviors and embedded them in our genetic inheritance?
Is it necessary to believe we have somehow come up in the past 300 thousand years (a pinprick in time) from related hominids, through a perfectly linear process of evolving as ever more superior beings with opposed thumbs and big brains and gym memberships? Is that not just self-deluding speciesism, putting us at the top of a very tall tree while ignoring the branches? Is a tree not just as extensive below ground as it is above?
Coming more up-to-date, we can observe civilizational traits in primates descended in the not-too distant past from our own ancestors.
Apes too display individualism and social organization, territorial delineation and defense, an eclectic diet based on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, responsible parenting, grooming and courtship behaviors, posturing and calling, tool-using, shows of respect for their dead, hierarchy, taboos – murder… a fondness for alcohol (!).
Where are those archetypal behaviors derived from, other than from earlier ancestors?
And who is to say those distant ancestors did not share at least the same civilizational traits, enough that they could weave them into an organized society: why is it necessary to believe they are recently learned or acquired traits, or just “animal instincts, as distinct from human rational thought, rather than behaviors inherited from forgotten early models just as, or even more sophisticated than today’s?
Could those unknown ancestors going back tens of millions of years not have developed definable civilizations before emerging in our lineage, our own “multiple intelligences”, instincts and skills passed down from theirs? Are we not in that sense ourselves living proof of past civilizations? Have we really only just discovered since Newcomen and his steam engine, since James Clerk Maxwell and Benjamin Franklin, since Locke and Hobbes, how to be “civilized”?
Or is that just cultural hubris, cutting us off from our distant, civilized past?
You would imagine the prime purpose of a thinktank is to think.
Back you go, then
Evidence that not everyone is descended from distant ancestors with pre-civilized traits comes from The Guardian today:
“The government needs to be far more ambitious in its plans to register the estimated 3.4 million EU citizens in the UK after Brexit, with outreach programmes in pubs, schools, hospitals and libraries, a thinktank report has said.”
You would imagine the prime purpose of a thinktank is to think. This one seems to be more concerned with tanking.
What demographic do they think they’re dealing with?
I have not personally visited a pub or a school in years. I drink silently alone at home, like most civilized middle-class people – smelly old pubs have been going out of business at the rate of two a day for years. Hospitals are in way over their heads just trying to find enough empty beds with spare nurses to keep the service afloat, let alone administer the racist Home Office’s hate-filled immigration policy.
Most of the libraries have been closed as the collateral damage of government austerity cuts. Anyway, who goes to libraries in the age of Kindl? Only rough sleepers.
Where the baboons who infest the murky world of thinktanks have been for the past forty years is difficult to determine. They seem to inhabit a John Major England of nurses on bicycles, warm beer and cricket on the village green.
Not unlike Americans, in fact.
Maybe we should investigate their immigration status?
GW: feels like makin’ history
Your old granny’s mummy was pregnant with her in 1949, when the temperature in London last topped 29C, 84F in April. But here we are again.
17C above the average. Feels like makin’ history.
And as she predicted when reporting on how everyone was moaning about how cold it was during the visit last month by the Beast from the East, the popular prints (and the BBC website) are once again full of homely advice about how to stay alive in the infernal heat of the day. (Stay indoors and drink plenty of fluids… don’t wear a silly costume if you’re going to run a marathon…)
We really are a bit sad in this country, where nothing but the internet trolling (and the desire to run in a silly costume) ever really goes to extremes.
Colombia: At least 2 people have died after a month’s worth of torrential rain fell in the city of Cali, Valle del Cauca department on Tuesday 17 April, bringing the death toll to 12 in the past week. Local officials said that 68.5 mm of rain fell in 2 hours.
Tanzania: death toll in Dar-es-Salaam flooding reaches 15. Further flooding in Kenya has left over 33,000 people displaced. Local authorities say that more than 20 people have died over the past 10 days.
USA: flooding from Winter Storm Xanto in New York City and New Jersey. Emergency services were called on to rescue around 50 people trapped in their cars. Heavy rain also affected parts of West Virginia, where a state of emergency was declared. Floods from snowmelt and rain have also affected northern Montana, where a state of emergency is in force.
“The flooding follows a massive storm from 13 to 15 April, 2018, that reached from the Gulf Coast to the Midwest, bringing with it heavy snow, hail and tornadoes. Up to 2 feet of snow fell in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin. At least 5 people are thought to have died as a result of the storm.”
2 people have died as a result of the extensive prairie fires still raging in Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. Hundreds of square miles and more than 25 homesteads have been destroyed. Storms are predicted for the weekend in the south, but generally an easing of the wintry conditions is forecast.
Martinique: Heavy rain, lightning strikes and hail caused landslides and major flooding on 16 April. In one 6-hour period, 250 mm rain drenched Le François, 125 mm falling in just 1 hour.
Puerto Rico: ignoring 2,000 dead in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina did little to improve George W Bush’s reputation, but the towel-chucking moron soldiers blithely on, having utterly failed the people of Puerto Rico, stricken by hurricanes Irma and Maria six months ago. News reaches us that the entire power grid for the island (pop. 3 million) was down again Monday after a digger accidentally knocked over a transformer. 40 thousand homes have still not been reconnected at all.
At the same time, authorities have approved $125 million for repairs in the wake of floods in Hawaii – another island in the middle of a big ocean.
India: 15 dead in Calcutta storm. Large parts of Central India including Rajastan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh are under an extreme heat advisory as temperatures climb past 40C, 104F.
United Kingdom: Blown by an onshore breeze, Granny Weatherwax’s Wunderground location moves from West Wales to Nether Edge shock! “One of the 28 electoral wards in the City of Sheffield, England.” (Wikipedia) Pop. 18,990. Says Gran: “My, they do find some interesting places to send me to!”
Edited from Floodlist/ Wunderground/ CEWN #111/
11 April, and Arctic sea ice volume was again at a record low for the time of year, threatening an ice-free ocean between July and September (Arctic News website, 17 April). Loss of ice allows more heat to enter the ocean and speeds deglaciation of the Greenland ice sheet, freshwater causing Gulf Stream current collapse. Feedback mechanisms might then result in rapid warming with an ominous rise in methane release.
Former University of Nevada bio-climatologist, Prof. Guy McPherson warns that:
“Rapid temperature rise will affect agriculture across the globe, threatening a collapse of industrial civilization, in turn resulting in an abrupt halt of the sulfates that are currently co-emitted as a result of burning fuel, reducing global dimming, which will further add to a temperature rise that is already threatening to cause people across the globe to perish at massive scale due to heatstroke, dehydration and famine, if not perish due to nuclear radiation and further toxic effects of war, as people fight over who controls the last habitable places on Earth.” Arctic-news.blogspot.com
This scenario could start to play out with frightening rapidity this year or next, leading to human extinction by 2026. McPherson, at one and the same time the most depressing and the most depressed human being on the planet, ever, enjoins us all to be kinder to one another in our remaining days. Most of us, he suggests, will be dead within 18 months from now.
It kind of puts Brexit into perspective.
Global seismicity remains in a state of excitement, with several M6 or greater quakes reported in recent days. As if 27 inches of rain were not enough:
“The U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory observations and measurements of the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption on Kīlauea volcano’s East Rift Zone during the past month suggest that the magma system beneath Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō has become increasingly pressurized.”
“Mount Ioyama, a volcano in southern Japan has erupted for the first time in 250 years, spewing steam and ash hundreds of meters into the air, as authorities warned locals not to approach the mountain.” This is the third Japanese volcano to erupt in the past four months, that has not erupted in living memory.
A corporate training video mocking-up a BBC news bulletin announcing the outbreak of nuclear war has got loose on YouTube, without its disclaimer. Well, it’s only a matter of time.
While citizen journalist reports continue to pour in to the website of phenomenologist, MrMBB333 of strange and unusual animal behaviors, mainly in snowlocked midwestern America, where hungry birds, raccoons and deer – even cougars – are said to be walking right up to houses and staring at people as if asking for help; and of a tsunami that terrified residents on the shore of Lake Michigan. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5K6ayaZkiM&t=104s
Most of his followers seem to agree: it’s the government manipulating the weather.
Arctic News/ Mary Greeley website/ MrMBB333 website