This book was like a time machine zapping us back all the way till the beginning of time and into the speculative future of the Earth, humans and all the possibilities that surround us. Annalee Newitz has iterated the history of how life has evolved through the many mass extinctions so far and how we as humans don’t fall prey to the next mass extinction which is very well under way, sadly thanks to us. Specie extinction rate per year has increased by many folds due to our selfish needs to want more and think less about the ecosystem around that, in fact provides for our survival. With no shame and no guilt, we continue with our indifferent lives to not giving the slightest care to the other species that we share the planet with. With the recent pandemic of course, it seems like the balance may have been titled towards the earth and against us, but we are nowhere close to healing the planet.
In her book, Annalee Newitz pens down some groundbreaking facts on the history of the planet, humans, the lessons we can learn from the species around us, and then takes a turn towards the future to present some of the work that scientists across the world are doing to make the cities fail-safe. The last chapter is speculating what humans can look forward to in a million years if we actually make it that far.
In these current times of the ongoing pandemic, we have seen many lives lost over the span of two years. And to top it off we have no substantial information on how long this might continue and how this virus exactly behaves in order to strategize the next few steps for the betterment of the human race. Well, do humans deserve betterment, haha well we can come back to that a little later. However, this recent event has definitely raised a lot of questions about the planet, our existence, and other species which have always existed but have been sitting there somewhere dormant waiting for enough people to acknowledge it.
Situations like this have come about five times in the past in the form of the oxygen apocalypse, snowball earth, mega volcanoes, and showering asteroids and have in fact very heavily contributed to the chemical and biological mix of the ecosystem that we live in. Some of these mass extinctions have taken eons to refurbish and re-establish successful ecosystems. Some species have survived through these extreme conditions from which we have a lot to learn. As the name of the book suggests -” Scatter, Adapt and Remember” are the main strategies that we can employ to come out a winner by the end of this.
It was the courage of the earliest human species Homo Neanderthals, to wander, far and wide, cross seas and ‘scatter’ as Annalee refers to it that led to you sitting on the comfort of your couch reading this article. Early Humans scattering across the continents was no easy feat and faced many difficulties not to mention several close calls with extinction due to founder’s effect (which means loss of genetic variation). It was the ability of these early humans to travel, tell stories and pass on the information from generation to generation that has resulted in the newer generations accumulating knowledge and venturing out further and further. We have to come to learn that we have evolved from a relatively small number of individuals from an isolated area and over the course of generations have learned to survive threats big and small.
Some of these threats came in the form of microorganisms much like what we are facing today minus the technological advancement, economy, and accumulated knowledge. There have been numerous deadly plagues that have traveled across the world. Annalee especially speaks about The Black Death of Europe, The Great Dying of London, and the Spanish Flu which fell millions of the population in very less time. There is a probability that the population had dropped to almost 10,000 before it bounced back to our current numbers. She also covers famines that caused similar effects.
As Annalee discusses some of the struggles that humans have faced over the centuries, almost being pushed to extinction, she also discusses some of the other species who survived extinction and how they did. She covers three species with incredible stories for us to learn from and how Scatter, Adapt and Remember might in fact be the best strategies for us to survive.
The Jewish diaspora, as it is called, is when the early Jewish were forced to flee from Egyptians to free themselves of slavery. This is why they are called diaspora people, a group far from their ancestral home and searching for a place where they wouldn’t be enslaved or worse. Later in the bible god leads the Jews to their promised land eventually called Israel, however in the story of Exodus they are still finding their destined place of sanctuary. Annalee writes – “ During a time in history when most nations celebrated military force and gory battles, the diaspora story in Exodus teaches us that there is great bravery in retreat. It is an act of tremendous strength to choose life and an uncertain future, rather than death in war. And hence they survived and so did their children and generations and generations for millennia. By SCATTERING and retreating and choosing to explore newer areas and conditions. The genetic evidence for the diaspora has been found across the world indicating how Jews have scattered and settled for generations across the world like Rome, Central Europe, and the Middle East. Geneticists like Harry Ostrer have identified that there is no single haplotype that unites all Jews and in fact, they found four distinct haplotypes with different Jewish diaspora groups. Towards the end of the section, Annalee points out that we “ now have both historical and genetic evidence that scattering and hiding out during times of upheaval is a good way to ensure that your progeny will survive- even for dozens of generations.”
The second story Annalee covers are about these slimy green organisms which we have all seen floating around in the water. The organisms which we have not bothered to care about are one of the hardiest organisms existing for almost 600 million years, even before multicellular organisms came into the picture. These are the cyanobacteria. The beautiful thing about these organisms is their ability to ADAPT. They had the capacity to merge with other organisms and build symbiotic relationships. Eventually, they became a part of most organisms in the form of chloroplasts, the tiny organelles that help in the process of photosynthesis. This process of photosynthesis is a very important and powerful process, that is what plants use to survive. Cyanobacteria’s adaptation is so efficient that most plants and even some animals like sea anemones have turned them into their own adaptation and are able to survive with it. And this ability of cyanobacteria has opened up quite a few speculative possibilities. Just like the way cyanobacteria were able to form chloroplasts, which are the powerhouse of plants, we can use cyanobacteria to bioengineer new ways of producing power. Researcher Himadri Pakrasi and his collaborators are working on a strategy to replace coal plants with ones that are run by plants.
The third story is about the mighty grey whales who look like ‘survivors’ as Annalee writes. They complete one of the longest migrations amongst the animal kingdom on the planet which became their biggest vulnerability. Their bodies devised incredible ways to help them during this entire migration of thousands of kilometers starting from the Arctic Ocean to the warmer lagoons of Baja California to escape the winter of the north. Their brains learned to shut off one hemisphere at a time to enable them to keep swimming without sleep. Their thick layer of blubber under their skin that they accumulated all summer grazing act as an energy house so they don’t have to stop to feed through the seven months of a round trip to Mexico. Annalee writes that the whales in spite of traveling in small groups, sometimes even alone, “ have maintained what could be called tradition, that gets passed on from one generation to the next. This isn’t a matter of mere instinct. Scientists believe that its something that each new juvenile must learn from the adults like passing along a map that is vital to their survival is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that they have survived by relying on their memories.” – REMEMBERING.
Annalee Newitz in the next section discusses how as humans we can build “Death Proof Cities”. Successful cities are what physicists call stochastic, meaning structured, repetitive process that contains an element of randomness. Building a city is always a process that is ever-changing with the change in time, technology, cultural shifts, and other such factors. She compares various geographic locations and how they are all built differently. For example in the ancient city of Catalhoyuk, people buried the dead beneath their houses and hence the house was not just a dwelling, but a monument to their past. The city of Baghdad is built based on class. It’s such a basic part of their society that this segregation can actually be seen from space.
As we move forward in time, we need to realize that we need to incorporate mutability and also sustainability in our urban planning. Instead of the artificial environments being a part of the cities, we need to build the cities which are a part of the natural environments.
Disaster management has also become an important part of urban planning, where now, the aim is not to produce impossibly damage-free structures but to actually build urban areas which would kill the least number of people in the event of a disaster. “This is pragmatic optimism at its most literal,” Annalee says.
There is a lot of research being done on not just disaster management for tangible parts of the environment but also for pandemics which can harm humans directly. It’s ironic that we are talking about this at a time like this.
She further discusses ideas of living underground and its pros and cons pointing out historic evidence of underground living during wars. As we move forward, urban vertical farms may also be useful as we move into more sustainable and efficient ways of livelihood.
In the last chapter, she speculates and gives scientific evidence of some of the research being done in the possibilities and opportunities for the future. She talks about the concept of ‘Terraforming Earth’. Some of the other endeavors spoken about include geoengineering projects of leaving this planet and moving into space or maybe other planets. Including the much-spoken about ‘Space Elevator’ Project where people can buy a ticket to take a ride on a space elevator which would potentially take them out of Earth and into orbit. Further from actually going into space scientists may actually be even talking about disassociating the mind and body. Uploading our minds so we can live forever. When the concept of death would change dramatically.
Amidst all this, she also discusses the possibility of poisoning the earth- becoming the Morlocks.
Things are going to get weird, she says. There may be horrific disasters, and we might lose a lot of life. But don’t worry. She concludes by saying “As long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive.”