Garrett (garote) wrote,

Arthur C Clarke Round 13: Humans Is The Crraaaziest Peoples

The Defenestration Of Ermintrude Inch, 1957

A scientist makes a device that counts spoken words, then challenges his annoying chatterbox wife to a contest to get her to shut up, then when she cheats at the contest, he allegedly throws her out the window.

I think can comfortably speak for female readers in this case, even though I have a penis, by saying to Arthur C Clarke: Grow up, you jackass.

Big Game Hunt, 1956

A very strange story about a scientist who invents a device that can "remote control" living creatures by electrically stimulating their nervous systems, making their muscles move. He eventually takes the device out into the middle of the ocean, drops it overboard, and uses it to compel monstrous sea-creatures to swim to the surface for observation.

I lost count of the holes in the premise - impossiblities in physics and biology, mostly - but the story was short and well-framed enough to remain compelling. Plus I always like it when stories end in disaster for the protagonist.

Critical Mass, 1949

A silly story about a bunch of scientists getting obsessed with radioactivity and panicking over a car accident. I saw the big plot twist way too early. Nothing to see here; move on ...

The Next Tenants, 1957

A rogue scientist is exploring some termite colonies, possibly mutated by man-made radiation. Another scientist in charge of a local nuclear test gets curious, and investigates. Turns out the termites are rapidly learning to use technology, and the rogue scientist is deliberately training them.

The narrative framing is only barely enough to justify the explorative conversation between the two scientists. That's okay - the premise is pretty interesting, even if a more thorough study of the mechanisms that drive an insect colony does not actually bear it out. It may be true that a hive mind is a kind of mind, and it's reasonable to expect that a mind is capable of learning, but to meet that expectation you have to twist and squash your definition of "learn" into something quite foreign.

I believe a termite colony "thinks" in a way closer to how our bodies "think", if one sets the brain aside and considers the body as a collective of individual cells. The technological advances made by the termites in Clarke's story would be equivalent to our bodies hanging around for a while and then suddenly redesigning the layout of our lungs to be more efficient, or making our eyes sensitive to infra-red, or turning our feet into hands, or whatever else makes life easier. Bodies just aren't that innovative - especially for no good reason.

Besides, fundamental changes like those would require a reworking of the way our bodies are grown, from the embryo on up. In the same way, sprawling insect colonies are grown in an orderly fashion from a tiny handful of individual insects. Where is the "hive mind" in this process? It can't dictate the terms of the colony if it doesn't even exist yet. No, changes in growth have to come from something more fundamental. Changes in genes, for example?

There's a bacterium that lives in the guts of all termites that helps it digest wood. It has its own genome, and its own genetic history, even though its symbiotic relationship with the termite is millions of years old. If you think about it, you can just about imagine how the arrangement started. Some insect was eating a plant that grew on wood, and ingested a piece of wood that also had this wood-eating bacteria on it. Perhaps the insect died, perhaps not, but this scenario probably repeated itself for quite a long while in some part of the world, and eventually the insects that could tolerate the bacterium outlived their peers. Then the bacterium started hanging out in their stomachs permanently, after the first time they ate it, and those insects lived even longer because the bacterium was excreting extra nutrients while digesting useless wood. The insects could now eat something their peers couldn't, giving them another food source. Then at some point an insect laid an egg that carried the bacteria along, which cemented the advantage. And the first terminte colony was born.

(Fun fact: Modern genetics has provided us with some specific details about this story.)

This process obviously took an incredibly long time, and was also thoroughly dependent on external factors. Selection pressures. How does this path to innovation compare to the simple "training exercises" that Clarke's scientist puts his termite colony through, building them little sleds and tools? Well, it's hard to imagine anything more different, actually. Selection pressures, working on a pliable organism, created a hive mind in termites over millions of years, the same way it gave them the ability to digest wood. How reasonable is it to expect that such a hive mind can be reshaped in a matter of days by handing "it" an instruction manual?

As an aside - another aside, really - this whole scenario reminds me of the "anthropic principle". Put simply, it means that things are the way they are around us because if they were too different, we wouldn't be around to observe and comment on them ... and invoke concepts like the "anthropic principle" in the first place. The definition is a little bit self-referential, yes.

Anyway it comes to mind because it makes an interesting comment about evolution, and the mechamisms of evolution on our planet Earth. Suppose rudimentary life formed billions of years ago, but the mechanism was a little too much like clockwork - a little too accurate. Natural selection can't operate very much on a life form that's highly resistant to change. Consider the opposite scenario - life formed billions of years ago, and was too pliable, constantly changing and mutating even without external selection pressure. Generation after generation, the organisms with good survival skills would reproduce - and then fail to pass on their survival skills. Life would quickly extinguish itself. In either scenario, there would never be any chance of constructing "highly evolved" creatures like ourselves.

But ... here we are. So, we can confidently assume that the organisms leading up to us were just flexible enough to mutate in interesting new directions, and also just consistent enough to pass good survival skills down the generations, and eventually even hang on to old baggage in case it becomes useful later on. Otherwise: No humans. No one around to make any observations or assumptions.

How many billions of planets all around us are absolutely stuffed with single-celled life, having independently created it from bizarre tidal chemistry, or having been seeded with it by frozen tough-as-nails spacefaring granules ... yet without any of those tiny organisms ever getting flexible enough to form bodies, and spinal cords, and limbs and brains and critters declaring their own anthropic principle?

What if we live in a universe that's sloshing with life in all directions, yet still contains no one else to talk to?

It's an interesting question, and it also defines a spectrum for us to consider. We may be surrounded by life, and it may even be large animals, and yet still not possess intelligence sufficient to hold a conversation with us. In fact the precedent here on Earth is not encouraging: Animals no more intelligent than the average chicken have been dominant most of the time, and in a hundred thousand years or so, our own rise to world dominance has already crossed the threshold from destructive to self-destructive. High intelligence may actually be a major disadvantage, past the first few thousand generations. Our fate as a species might have been sealed with the first symbol we carved on a cave wall.

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