The Human Neocortex

Neocortex

I finally picked up How To Create A Mind by Ray Kurzweil, and so far it has been a thoroughly enjoyable read.  Kurzweil gives an eloquent overview of why the human neocortex is important, and how it enables us to build cumulative culture:

“Only Homo sapiens have a knowledge base that itself grows exponentially, and is passed down from one generation to another.”

— Ray Kurzweil

Animal behaviourists know that some other species exhibit behaviours that can be interpreted to be cultural.  However, it seems that no other species possess what evolutionary scientists call “cultural ratcheting” or “cumulative culture”.  This is the phenomenon where by knowledge and technology improve and increase in complexity over time (Dean et al., 2012).  Primatologist Victoria Horner has suggested: “if cumulative culture does exist in other species, it is extremely rare.”  In my opinion, cumulative culture of some kind probably does exist in other species, although this process would be impossible to empirically test.  During the start of any exponential process, complexity increases undetectably over small timescales.  It is only noticeable in retrospect (e.g., exponential improvement of hominid tool technology).  Either way, it is clear that we are the only species that has ever existed on Earth that exhibits an indisputable form of cumulative culture.

This is all very interesting, but why has our neocortex enabled this type of progress, when other species also possess a neocortex?  In fact, the neocortex is a defining characteristic of all mammals, and recent research (e.g., Dugas-Ford et al., 2012) has also revealed that different neocortical architecture exists in birds and reptiles.  Presumably, it is this brain architecture that allows animals like crows, parrots, and octopi to exhibit behaviour that many scientists consider to be “cultural”.  So what is it about our neocortex that is special?  Kurzweil argues that the organization of the neocortex is more important than whether it is present or absent.  The mammalian neocortex is organized hierarchically in six-layers.  In contrast, the bird neocortex is organized into nuclei and the reptile neocortex is organized into cortical areas.  According to Kurzweil the organization of bird and reptile neocortices prevents them from creating technology that has its own evolutionary course of development (Kurzweil, 2012), and that this is only possible with a six-layered mammalian neocortex that can leverage “the innately hierarchical nature of reality” (Kurzweil, 2012).

I slightly disagree with this assessment.  Since we know of only one species that has developed technology with its own evolutionary course of development, who is to say that the organization of our neocortex is what enables cumulative culture?  Perhaps the avian neocortex could also enable cumulative culture given enough time and the right evolutionary pressures.  After all, convergent evolution is very powerful.  Eyes have evolved independently between 50-100 times and have utilized different organizational frameworks to accomplish the same task (Land & Nilsson, 2002).  Considering how important the neocortex is for the evolution of intelligence, evolution could develop different organizational structures that would enable cumulative culture.  Perhaps it is the proportion of the neocortex, relative to the cerebral cortex, that is important, as opposed to the organizational structure.  As stated above, all mammals have a six-layered neocortex, but only humans are known to possess cumulative culture.  If it is the proportion, and not the structure that is important, then the expansion of the human neocortex is one of the most important evolutionary developments in the history of life on Earth.  Although scientists still know relatively little about the origin of the neocortex itself (Dugas-Ford et al., 2012), evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar does have a working hypothesis for the emergence of the human neocortex.

 Dunbar (2001) claims that the human neocortex coevolved with increased primate group size.  This hypothesis was formulated after the realization that primates that lived in large groups had a proportionally large neocortex region.  Further analysis revealed that the larger the neocortex, the larger the group that can be maintained as a coherent entity (Dunbar, 2001).  This correlation also applies to hominid evolution.  Data suggests that Australopithecine group size was not that much larger than the group size of living chimpanzees, however group size spikes significantly with the appearance of Homo habilis, before stabilizing again.  This is spike in group size is correlated with an increase in overall brain size from 350-400 cm3 to 600 cm3.  Throughout the Homo erectusperiod there is also steady rise in brain size from 800 cm3 to 1500 cm3 that correlates with an equally steady increase in group size.  Although it is difficult to conclude definitively that neocortex expansion itself is correlated with these increases in group size, it appears to be consistent with both primatological observations and the available fossil record.  This line of reasoning is further validated by the fact that the primate neocortex is specifically used for rational thought and language.  Under this framework, the evolution of a proportionally large neocortex enabled our ancestors to use language as a social glue to increase group size.
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Regardless, even though I have a slight disagreement with Kurzweil about the evolution of the neocortex, I think his fundamental point that the human neocortex allows for a unique type of thought, is well-grounded in current evidence and theory.  Perhaps it is best summed up by Kurzweil: “[Our neocortex allows us to] understand a structure composed of diverse elements arranged in a pattern, representing that arrangement with a symbol, and then using that symbol as an element in a yet more elaborate configuration.”  All evidence suggests that this occurs in our vastly expanded mammalian neocortex.  As a result of this structure we are capable of building ideas that are ever more complex.  In the long-term we may be able to expand and improve upon this structure, enabling yet another giant leap in our capabilities.  As a consequence, there may be no upper boundary to what we can eventually understand, control, and achieve.  If you want to learn about how this could happen in your lifetime, I definitely recommend picking up How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.

References:

Dean, L.G., Kendal, R.L., Schapiro, S.J., Thierry, B., & Laland, K.N.  2012.  Identification of the social and cognitive processes underlying human cumulative culture.  Science, 335: 1114-1118.

Dunbar, R.  2001.  Brains on two legs: group size and the evolution of intelligence.  In Tree of Origin: What Primate Behavior Can Tell Us About Human Social Evolution (173-191).  London: Harvard University Press.

Dugas-Ford, J., Rowell, J.J., & Ragsdale, C.W.  2012.  Cell-type homologies and the origins of the neocortex.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  109: 16974-16979.

Kurzweil, R.  2012.  How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.  New York: Penguin Group.

Land, M.F. & Nilsson, D.E.  2002.  Animal Eyes.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Top Science Discoveries of 2012

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This is my personal top 25 discoveries and stories from the world of science this year.  In terms of criteria I wanted to make a list of what I thought was interesting or important.  I also wanted to try and equally represent discoveries in the environmental, physical, life, and social sciences.  I purposefully left out more applied scientific discoveries in health and technology.  This is because it is hard for me to quantify their importance next to more theoretical and conceptual breakthroughs.  There were also a lot of interesting discoveries that I had to leave off the list.  I debated making a list of the top 50 discoveries, but this project took me a very long time as it is.  Its purpose is to be thought-provoking, inspire a broad interest in science, and give people a snapshot of what the world’s best researchers are discovering about our Universe!

25. Mapping Earliest Complex Human Societies

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A new system has been developed to help understand early human settlement patterns.  This system utilizes computers to scour satellite images for telltale clues of human habitation, like soil discolorations and the distinctive mounding that results from the collapse of mud-brick homes.  This method was first applied this year by a team of archaeologists in a 23,000 square kilometer area of northeastern Syria.  The images revealed 9,000 possible ancient settlements between 7,000 and 8,000 years old.  These data were staggering and will help archaeologists understand an area of the world where the first complex human societies emerged in greater detail.  At the moment archaeologists only have small-scale understandings of the ancient world.  However, with these new techniques we may be able to understand the ancient world on large, complex scales.  Consequently, we may gain a new understanding of how humans made the first transition from hunting and gathering to settled agricultural city-states.

Article:

Mapping patterns of long-term settlement in Northern Mesopotamia at a large scale

24. Record Minimum Arctic Sea Ice

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Arctic sea ice extent has been shrinking consistently since satellite records have been tracking it over the past 30 years.  This year represented the start of what climatologists are calling “uncharted territory”.  In 2012, the record for lowest extent of Arctic sea ice coverage was broken three times.  The previous record was broken on the 18th of Septemeber 2007, when the Arctic sea ice extent low was 4.17 million square kilometers.  In 2012, Arctic sea extent was 4.10 million square kilometers on 26th of August, below four million square kilometers on the 4th of September, and reached the now record low of 3.41 million square kilometers later in September.  This is almost one million square kilometers less than the previous record and is 50% lower than the 1979-2000 average Arctic sea ice extent.  At current rates, climatologists now expect no Arctic sea ice by the 2030s.

Report:

Record minimum for Arctic sea ice

23. First Objects Temporally Cloaked

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Scientists developed spatial cloaking earlier this century.  However, now researchers have developed a device that can hide events in time, or “temporal cloaking”.  The device does this by speeding up and slowing down different parts of a light beam and then putting them back together.  As a result, the event would become “hidden in time”.  At the moment, this technology can only hide events for 40 trillionths of a second (0.00012), which is a time frame impossible to directly impact human actions.  In the future, the ability to cloak events in both time and space simultaneously may be improved to the point where events and spaces can be hidden on the scale of seconds and minutes.  Combining the ability to cloak events both spatially and temporally is theoretically possible.  Likewise, extending the current timeframe and spatial scale of cloaking ability is also possible.

Article:

Demonstration of temporal cloaking

22. XNA Compounds Demonstrate Evolution

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In the emerging field of astrobiology, researchers are attempting to understand if life elsewhere could be based on a host of alternative nucleic acids other than the ones that compose RNA and DNA.  Synthetic biologists seem to have proven it is likely that life could be based on a number of different nucleic acids.  The team showed that artificial molecules can be made to pass genes onto their descendants by focusing on XNA’s (xeno-nucleic acids).  XNA’s are based on different sugars than RNA and DNA, but even with a different sugar backbone, XNA can mimic many of DNA’s properties.  This evidence suggests that XNA’s (or other forms of DNA) could form the basis of life on other planets or moons, where different conditions lead to different types of chemistry than found on Earth.  Perhaps most importantly, this research makes it even more likely that some moons in our solar system with different chemistry to Earth (e.g., Titan, Europa) may host complex life.

21. Origins of Indo-European Language Family Linked to Farming

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There are currently two competing hypotheses for the emergence of the Indo-European language family, which is the most widespread language family in the world.  The history of this language family is relatively clear over the past 2,000 years because these languages have been written consistently and the history of their peoples is understood as a result.  However, it is less clear when these language families emerged.  At the moment the majority view is that the language family emerged in Ukraine 6,000 years ago, and the minority view is that it emerged in Anatolia between 8,000-9,000 years ago.  Researchers from the Max Planck Institute attempted to better understand this emergence by applying a Bayesian phylogenetic approaches to model the expansion of the family and test the two hypotheses.  This analysis revealed that the minority view is likely correct.  It appears as though the Indo-European language family first emerged in Anatolia between 8,000-9,000 years ago.  This means that the spread of the Indo-European language family is likely connected to the emergence of farming and the societies that first adapted to a farming lifestyle in central Eurasia.

Article:

Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family

20. Star Formation 1/30th of its Peak

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The first-generation stars born after the Big Bang were massive and short-lived by today’s standards.  These early stars produced the complexity of elements found in third-generation stars and solar systems like ours.  However, the stars in the present day Universe are much smaller and longer-lived than their predecessors.  Understanding this cosmic evolution is key to understanding its future development.  In order to better understand this evolution astronomers wanted to assess whether star formation rate over cosmic time was stable, increasing, or decreasing.  A team of international researchers collected information on star-forming regions of galaxies at different distances.  Using this data the team was able to determine that star formation was at its highest rate 11 billion years ago, and is 1/30th of its peak in contemporary times.  If this decline continues, 95% of the stars that will ever be created in the Universe have already been born.  This is because stars today are lasting billions of years longer than their predecessors and are exploding their gaseous material into an ever-expanding Universe.  This means fewer stellar nurseries will form in the future.  These data help scientists better understand how our Universe has evolved and how it will be structured billions and trillions of years from now.

19. Lichen Survive Mars-like Environment

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Scientists have debated for decades whether Mars may be host to microbial life.  Although no indigenous Martian life has been discovered, research this year demonstrated that it is theoretically possible.  A team of researchers exposed lichen (Circinaria gyrosa) to Mars-like conditions at the German Aerospace Center’s Mars Simulation Laboratory for 34 days.  The lichen were subjected to the same conditions that they would have experienced if they were placed on Mars.  The researchers discovered that these lichen adapted fairly easily to the environment, but were most successful at surviving in small cracks within the simulated Martian soil.  It is believed that these areas allowed the lichen to avoid harsh radiation.  This experiment revealed that fairly complex life could still exist on Mars.  It is known that Mars had a much more hospitable environment billions of years ago.  If life arose during this time period, there may still be indigenous life forms on Mars in present day niches that resemble areas that the lichen adapted to in the simulated environment.  This research also shows that life is extremely adaptable, even to extremely harsh conditions, and indicates that life could theoretically survive in others areas of the solar system.

Article:

The resistance of the lichen Circinaria gyrosa (nom. Provis.) towards simulated Mars conditions – a model test for the survival capacity of an eukaryotic extremophile

18. 100-km, 3-Billion-Year Old Impact Crater Discovered

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There have been several massive asteroid and meteor impacts in Earth’s natural history.  However, a team of scientists in Greenland discovered one of the largest and oldest.  The team that made the discovery has been methodically piecing together the key evidence of this impact over the past three years.  It took so long to understand what caused the geological structures observed in western Greenland because the impact occurred three billion years ago.  Scientists had previously thought that it would be impossible to find evidence of such an impact from this epoch due to geological processes like erosion.  However, this impact was so large and intense that the shock wave penetrated deeper into the crust than any other known crater.  The impact itself was around 100 kilometers in size and would have completely reshaped the evolution of the early Earth’s climate and life.  Future research will be needed to understand how these processes were affected.

Article:

Oldest Known Meteorite Impact Uncovered

17. Lethally Hot Temperatures During Early Triassic

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Earth suffered a major mass extinction called the end-Permian event 252 million years ago.  However, scientists were always unable to answer why it took 5 million years for life to recover from that mass extinction event.  Palaeoclimatologists in 2012 revealed why: the Earth became “lethally” hot.  The end-Permian die off killed almost all of the Earth’s plants, and without any plants to consume carbon dioxide, the Earth experienced a runaway greenhouse effect.  Researchers discovered that at its worst, oceans reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (compare that with contemporary oceans that are 77-86 degrees).  Over this time period the Earth was virtually life-less.  This study also shows how our planet reacts to a climate with unbalanced levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is currently driving up average global temperature every year.

Article:

Lethally Hot Temperatures During the Early Triassic Greenhouse

16. Pleistocene Plant Blooms Again

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We got a little closer to Jurassic Park in 2012.  A team of scientists brought a 30,000 year-old Siberian Pleistocene plant (Silene stenophylla) back to life.  This is by far the oldest plant brought back to life; 2,000 year-old date palm seeds held the previous record.  The scientists claim that the seeds of the Pleistocene plant were in permafrost for the entire period of time, which acted as a giant freezer, leaving them undisturbed and unthawed.  This research represents a landmark discovery that biological material can be revived after laying dormant for tens of thousands of years, and may be an important development in the quest to revive other species, including species that are currently extinct.

Article:

Regeneration of whole fertile plants from 30,000-y-old fruit tissue in Siberian permafrost

15. Dark Matter Scaffolding Directly Detected

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Dark matter is thought to make up 83 per cent of matter in the universe, yet until 2012, astronomers had never directly detected its existence.  In July a team of researchers announced that they had directly detected dark matter between two galactic clusters Abell 222 and Abell 223.  The discovery came as a surprise to the science community, which did not expect dark matter to be directly detected until future advancements in telescope technology were made.  The team made the discovery after analyzing the light of more than 40,000 background galaxies to determine the percentage of unseen mass holding Abell 222 and Abell 223 together.  Astronomers have said that this research is a resounding confirmation of standard theory of structure formation in the universe.  Future research and improved telescope technology should give astronomers more opportunities to study the structure of dark matter in the universe.

Article:

A filament of dark matter between two clusters of galaxies

14. Super Volcanoes May Be Predictable

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Supervolcanoes are extremely rare, but extremely devastating events for the Earth’s climate and biosphere.  Research into the nature of supervolcanic eruptions has revealed some startling and terrifying results.  However, volcanologists main concern has been trying to devise a way to predict when the next supervolcanic eruption would occur.  New results from an international study this year may have revealed how much time we would have to prepare for such an event.  By studying the crystals in pumice rock from the Santori site, researchers realized that magma was growing within the caldera underneath the volcano for decades.  This new discovery should help volcanologists predict a supervolcanic eruption decades in advance, as opposed to weeks or months in advance.  Some tell tale signs would be rapid caldera chamber build up, increased rock deformation, and increased gas emission to the surface.  Our species biggest challenge now becomes trying to understand what we would do to prepare for such an event.

Article:

Decadal to monthly timescales of magma transfer and reservoir growth at a caldera volcano

13. Human-Caused Megafaunal Extinctions During Quaternary

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Scientists have long-debated about the cause of Quaternary megafaunal extinctions in Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas.  This debate frequently centers around climate change or anthropogenic overkill as the main cause.  However, several research papers this year seemed to strongly indicate that anthropogenic overkill was the main cause of megafaunal extinctions throughout the world.  Research studying environmental change in Australia over 130,000 years concluded that human presence disrupted ecological equilibrium, not climate change.  Other researchers studying geographic ranges of over 150 animals in North America, attempted to understand whether extinctions disproportionately effected taxa with small geographic ranges.  They found that the extinction event did not preferentially impact taxa with small geographic ranges, but did preferentially impact taxa with large body size.  This is also consistent with the anthropogenic overkill hypothesis.  Furthermore, theoretical research was also used to integrate our understanding of Neanderthal extinction into the larger Quaternary megafaunal extinction events.  These studies have important implications for contextualizing contemporary extinction events, and predicting our future impact on the biosphere.

Articles:

The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia

The Quaternary megafaunal extinction and the fate of Neanderthals: An integrative working hypothesis

Range sizes and shifts of North American Pleistocene mammals are not consistent with a climatic explanation for extinction

12. Oldest Galaxy Discovered

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Astronomers are constantly improving our understanding of the early universe by utilizing new technologies and methods.  As a consequence, our knowledge of the Universe in its infancy keeps improving.  Before 2012, astronomers had little knowledge of the “cosmic dawn” a period between 400-600 million years ago.  This year, we gained a better understanding of this period when a family of the oldest galaxies were discovered.  The oldest of these galaxies was UDFj-39546284, which formed approximately 380 million years after the Big Bang.  This galaxy, along with its surrounding galaxies, which formed between 400-600 million years ago, have indicated that the first galaxies formed gradually, as opposed to suddenly.

Article:

The Abundance of Star-Forming Galaxies in the Redshift Range 8.5 to 12: New Results From The 2012 Hubble Ultra Deep Field Campaign

11. Denisovan Genome Decoded

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Until recently, most scientists thought that there were only two species of humans (i.e., modern humans and Neanderthals) living in Eurasia in the Upper Palaeolithic (50 – 10 thousand years ago).  However, over the past decade several finds have indicated that there were several more.  Svante Paabo and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Evolutionary Anthropology have revealed further proof of this fact with genetics.  They sequenced the genome from the bones of an individual that had been found in Denisova Cave in southern Siberia.  The results indicated that the individual was not a modern human or a Neanderthal.  The new species has been named Denisovans.  Together with Neanderthals, Denisovans are the closest extinct relatives of modern humans.  It is likely that all three species knew of each others existence and may have even lived together in what is today Siberia.  Future genomic comparative studies should help scientists uncover important genetic differences that contributed to the development of modern human culture and technology.

Article:

A High Coverage Denisovan Genome

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10. Secret to Hydra Immortality Revealed

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Scientists have known for several years that the polyp Hydra displayed signs of negligible senescence.  It appears as though this animal can only die from predation or disease.  One of the ways in which the Hydra can do this is because of continuous proliferation of stem cells.  This year, researchers in Germany gained a better understanding of this process, and believe their findings have relevance to ageing in humans.  They identified the gene FoxO, which is known to play a role in ageing, and they genetically modified three groups of Hydra.  One group had normal FoxO levels, one group had inactivated FoxO, and one group had enhanced FoxO levels.  They were able to show that the Hydra with inactive FoxO started to have severe complications with their immune systems.  Many of these complications mirrored immune system dysfunction that is seen in elderly humans.  The team concluded that FoxO plays a critical role in ageing, and that immune system function and stem cell proliferation may be the key to prolonging the human lifespan as well.

Article:

FoxO is a critical regulator of stem cell maintenance in immortal Hydra

9. Earth-sized and Habitable Zone Exoplanet Detection

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The search for “another Earth” continued this year, with phenomenal results.  Before 2012 astronomers had detected over 800 planets, but none of them were Earth-sized or within the habitable zone of their host star.  That changed this year.  In the first month of 2012 astronomers identified three of the smallest planets ever detected (smallest was Mars-sized).  However, all three planets orbited their host star as closely as Mercury orbits our Sun, making them way too hot to be Earth-like candidates.  Later in the year astronomers made two more significant finds: an Earth-sized planet in the closest solar system to ours (Alpha Centauri), and a “super-Earth” within the habitable zone of its host star.  The Earth-sized planet in Alpha Centauri orbits very closely to its host star, but demonstrated astronomer’s ability to detect Earth-sized planets and suggested that Earth-sized planets were relatively common.  The “super-Earth” discovered is only 42 light-years away and is thought to be a candidate for life because it may be covered in liquid water.  More interesting news from exoplanet detections was made this December when astronomers announced the possible discovery of an Earth-sized planet within the habitable zone of Tau Ceti (12 light-years away).  If confirmed, this would become the number one candidate for the discovery of “another Earth” and also a potential hot-spot for complex life in the universe.

Reports:

NASA’s Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets

Earth-size planet found orbiting the star system next door

Another Earth Just 12 Light-Years Away?

8. Crucial Milestone for Quantum Teleportation

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Teleportation is no longer just science fiction…  at least at the atomic scale.  Scientists have been teleporting photons for several years now.  However, scientists from the University of Waterloo recently broke a new teleportation distance record with significance for the future of teleportation.  They successfully achieved quantum teleportation over 143 km distance from the Canary Islands to the islands of La Palma and Tenerife.  This distance is significant because that is the minimum distance between the ground and orbiting satellites.  Once full-scale networked quantum computing exists, quantum teleportation could allow for secure communication.  The next goals for the research team is to start quantum teleporting upwards.

Article:

Quantum teleportation over 143 kilometers using active feed-forward

7. “Ratcheting” Separates Humans From Other Primates

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Sir Isaac Newton famously stated that we “stand on the shoulders of giants”, insinuating that humans are able to accomplish deep scientific understanding, create rich artistic traditions, and build sophisticated technology because our culture becomes increasingly complex.  We build on the cultural achievements of the generations that came before us.  However, a study in 2012 provided strong evidence indicating that this is absent in other species, even our closest relatives.  Researchers compared the ability of human children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys to solve a complex puzzle box with three different stages.  In order to solve the puzzle box (and acquire a food reward) the individuals would have to cooperate and teach each other in order to accomplish progressively higher-level solutions at each stage.  All human children were able to accomplish these tasks, however no chimpanzee or capuchin groups were able to exhibit the behaviour necessary to complete the task.  This led primatologist Victoria Horner to conclude: “if cumulative culture does exist in other species, it is extremely rare.”

Article:

Identification of the Social and Cognitive Processes Underlying Human Cumulative Culture

6. Next Ice Age Offset by Human Fossil Fuel Consumption

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A study from the environmental sciences this year provided significant evidence that the next scheduled Ice Age would occur 1,500 years from now, if we had left fossil fuels in the ground.  This study, although it can be interpreted positively, demonstrates just how dramatically humans are changing climate on a global scale.  The researchers claimed that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels immediately, the next Ice Age would already be averted.  The researchers were able to calculate when the next Ice Age would have occurred by comparing the Earth’s pre-industrial climate to past interglacial phases over the past few million years.  Ice Age and interglacial cycles occur in distinct patterns known as Milankovitch cycles.  These cycles are caused by subtle variations in the Earth’s orbit that take tens of thousands of years to change.  If we stop burning fossil fuels by 2100 the Earth should experience its next Ice Age approximately 120,000 years from now.

Article:

Determining the natural length of the current interglacial

5. Final Great Ape Genomes Decoded

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Before 2012, humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans had their complete genomes decoded.  This year two separate European research groups decoded the gorilla and bonobo genomes.  Researchers at Cambridge decoded the gorilla genome.  The results indicated that gorillas share 98% of our DNA and diverged from the human/chimp/bonobo lineage 10 million years ago.  Although these numbers weren’t major shocks, the speciation date was earlier than had previously been thought.  Researchers at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology decoded the bonobo genome shortly later in the year.  Their genome revealed that only 4 amino acids per 1,000 within their DNA sequence differed from chimpanzees.  Using these data researchers were able to pin point the chimp/bonobo divergence to 1 million years ago.  Now researchers at MPI are going to try to understand more about the human/chimp/bonobo common ancestor by comparing all three species genomes in greater detail.

Articles:

Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence

The bonobo genome compared with the chimpanzee and human genomes

4. First Model Simulation of Observable Universe

This year a team of French researchers used CURIE, a new supercomputer, to create the first ever computer model simulation of the entire observable universe from the Big Bang to the present (a distance equivalent to 90 billion light years).  The super computer created this simulation by following the evolution of 550 billion particles as part of a project called Deus: full universe run.  The results from these simulations allowed the researchers to a) estimate the total number of galaxy clusters with a mass larger than hundred thousand billion solar masses (144 million), and b) discover that the first of these galaxy clusters developed around 2 billion years after the Big Bang.  Their data also revealed that the largest massive cluster in the observable universe weighs 15 quadrillion (15 thousand trillion) solar masses.  In the future, data from this simulation will help cosmologists understand the imprint dark energy leaves on cosmic structures and how dark energy can be inferred from observing distributions of matter.

Article:

First-ever model simulation of the structuring of the observable universe

3. Planets Around Stars: Rule, Not Exception

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A long-term astronomy study this year suggested exoplanets outnumber stars by a large margin in our galaxy.  Their results revealed that each of the 100 billion or so stars in our galaxy hosts 1.6 planets on average.  Most of these planets are likely to be low mass, indicating that there may be hundreds of millions of small/rocky planets like Earth.  This study was based on statistical extrapolation and provided considerable evidence that stars with a gravitationally bound planetary system is the rule, rather than the exception.  The data was collected between 2002-2007 with earth-based telescopes using gravitational microlensing.  Gravitational microlensing is a more reliable approach to uncover hidden extrasolar worlds because other popular methods (e.g., photometry, radial velocity) are biased towards finding stars that orbit closely to their parent star.  This made statistically extrapolating the number of planets in the Milky Way based off of the data collected in this study more accurate.  Although it is now estimated that there are around 160 billion planets in our galaxy, the number of total planets is likely double that because of the recent discovery of nomad planets (planets without a host star).

2. ENCODE

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In early September our understanding of the human genome was increased substantially with the coordinated publication of 30 research papers produced by the research consortium Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE).  Before their publication we understood how small sections of DNA — genes — coded for important chemicals and proteins in our body.  However, that was only 2% of the entire human genome; the rest was thought to be ‘junk DNA’.  Researchers revealed that 80% have our genome does have a function, but further research will be needed to elucidate exactly what it does.  Most aspects of this part of the human genome is information that is coded to be ‘on’ or ‘off’ during certain times in our lives.  Medical professionals hope that we will be able to use this information to understand how these ‘on/off’ switches can be modified to prevent diseases, improve overall health, and slow the ageing process.

Articles:

ENCODE-funded Publications

1. Discovery of the Higgs Boson

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On July 4th, CERN rocked the world of physics with the discovery of the Higgs boson, the last of the elementary particles in the Standard Model of physics.  The Higgs can explain why particles acquire mass and why the electromagnetic force and the weak force are divided.  Although it is still unclear whether the boson was exactly what the Standard Model predicted 40 years ago, the discovery is sure to define the entire subject for the foreseeable future, and open up the possibility of “new” physics.  Perhaps most importantly, this discovery allows physicists to make a pitch for a new next-generation collider that would work as a “Higgs factory” and enable the possibility for a theory to unify quantum mechanisms and the theory of general relativity.

Articles:

Observation of a new boson at a mass of 125 GeV with the CMS experiment at the LHC

Combined search for the Standard Model Higgs boson using up to 4.9 fb-1 of pp collision data with the ATLAS detector at the LHC

Economic Evolution

Big history can help us understand many aspects of humanity.  When we analyze trends from a big historical perspective, we can better extrapolate the changes that we should expect in the future.  Nowhere is this more evident than with the research of economist Robin Hanson.  Hanson (1994; 1998; 2008a; 2008b) has conducted groundbreaking research in big history economics.  By analyzing the evolution of human economic systems he has revealed what our economic system may be like by the end of the century.

Like many aspects of human evolution, economic growth appears to follow exponential trends.  By analyzing large shifts in modes of production, Robin Hanson showed that there have been very clear economic doubling times that are connected to large-scale system transitions over time.  For example, some of the largest-scale transitions in the past have been from hunting to farming and from farming to industrial production.  Although there is obviously important overlap and transition times between these large-scale transitions, the economy as a whole appears to be dominated mainly by the newly emergent mode (i.e., farming over hunting; industrial production over farming).

However, the key finding from his research is that economic doubling time, in terms of overall human wealth, keeps shrinking.  During the hunting era (~2 million years ago to 10,000 thousand years ago) overall human wealth seems to have doubled over 224,000 thousand years.  This represents exceptionally slow growth, but it is still real measureable growth.  The average human band of Homo habilis would have been relatively impoverished in terms of nutrition, health, lifespan, etc. when compared to the average human band of Homo sapiens sapiens 10,000 years ago.

When humans entered an economic-era driven by farming (between 10,000 years ago to 250 years ago) this economic doubling time shrank exponentially to ~909 years.  However, during this time period economic growth was barely noticeable on the scale of a human life.  There was growth, but most people didn’t realize it.  Most intellectuals only became aware of economic growth after the main driver of economic growth transitioned from farming to industry.  Hanson’s analysis indicated that since the industrial revolution to the present day, economic growth doubles every 6.3 years, an exponential leap from the days when economic growth was driven by farming activities.

Furthermore, it is important to realize that because economic growth’s doubling time keeps becoming quicker, the large-scale economic transitions may also be changing more quickly as well.  Humans lived in a hunting-driven economic era for hundreds of thousands of years, a farming-dominated economic era for thousands of years, and a industrially-dominated economic era for two and a half centuries.  Could the mode of production changes themselves be changing more rapidly?

Hanson has suggested that they are, and based on these doubling times, we should expect another large-scale economic transition to occur soon… this century soon.  During the industrial era machines have becoming more and more competent at doing manual labour jobs that were previously done by humans.  At first machines were used to complement manual human labour, but eventually they replaced human labourers.  Many economists have realized that an analogous transition is happening right now.  However, it is happening faster and it is happening on a global scale.  Computers are being used for almost every conceivable line of work to enhance productivity and capability, however, they are also starting to replace us.  As computer-based technology continues to improve and transition from “narrow-AI” to “strong-AI” we should expect there to be a transition from an economy based on human intelligence to an economy based on machine intelligence.  In some sense, this is already happening.  However, in a few decades time it will become obvious that this transition is occurring in a large-scale transition sense analogous (and perhaps more transformational) than the transitions that have occurred in the past.

Hanson has predicted that this transition from a human intelligence to a machine intelligence driven economy will happen quite abruptly.  The diffusion times between past transitions happened at increasingly quick paces (i.e., the transition from hunting to farming diffused at a much slower pace than the transition from farming to industry).  It is entirely plausible that as the AI improves, the price to replace humans with AI will decrease.  This would follow Moore’s law-like computer cost development models that have been quite accurate for the past few decades.  Once human knowledge and intellectual abilities become copyable this transition should come as an explosion and build on itself globally.

How will this transition effect our lives?  Where will our place in this economy be?  I think that depends on the nature of the transition itself.  Will our own technology make us obsolete?  Or will we merge with it?  However, if big history is any indication, we are not in control of whether it happens or not.  It may be inevitable.

References

Hanson, R.  1994.  If uploads come first: the crack of a future dawn.  Extropy, 6.  http://hanson.gmu/uploads.html

Hanson, R.  1998.  Long-term growth as a sequence of exponential modes.  http://hanson.gmu.edu/longgrow.pdf

Hanson, R.  2008.  Economics of brain emulations.  In Healey, P. & Rayner, S. (eds.).  Unnatural Selection – The Challenges of Engineering Tomorrow’s People, p. 150-158. London: EarthScan.

Hanson, R.  2008.  Economics of the singularity.  IEEE Spectrum, 37-42.

A Two-Planet Species

When humans first landed on the moon on July 21, 1969, many people believed that we would have visited Mars before the end of the century.  However, the year 2000 came and went, and dreams of going to Mars felt no more realistic than they had in 1969.  Our species underestimated the challenges that sending humans to Mars posed.  Although we discovered several challenges that needed to be overcome with scientific and engineering ingenuity, the biggest obstacle was with government funding.  The richest country on the planet during the past four decades has been unwilling to invest the funding it would take to make us a two-planet species.  As a result, people pushing for Martian colonization are looking to private industry.  In 2012, two companies have made firm proposals with the goal to colonize Mars this century: Mars-One and SpaceX.

Mars-One

On May 31 2012, Mars-One announced plans to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2023.  This would be a one-way mission with four astronauts that would be followed every two years with more astronauts.  By 2033, they intend to have a colony of 20 people living and working on Mars.  Throughout the year Mars-One has been acquiring more donors, collaborators, and supporters.  Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and President of Mars-One shirks any suggestion that these goals are unrealistic:

“Since its conceptualizations, Mars-One has evolved from a bold idea to an ambitious but feasible plan. Just about everyone we speak to is amazed by how realistic our plan is. The next step is introducing the project to the world and securing sponsors and investors. Human exploration of Mars will be the most exciting adventure mankind has embarked upon in decades.”

— Bas Lansdorp

He also believes that going to Mars is something that will inspire us for generations to come and garner the attention of the entire planet:

“It will inspire a new generation of engineers, inventors, artists, and scientists. It will create breakthroughs in recycling, life support and solar power systems. It will create a new generation of heroes – the first explorers to go to Mars will step straight into the history books. Finally, we expect it to capture an audience of millions, culminating in several billion online spectators when the first crew lands on Mars.”

— Bas Lansdorp

In order to make this dream a reality, Lansdorp has a very clear and thorough timeline:

  • 2013: first 40 astronauts will be selected; a replica of the settlement will be built for training purposes
  • 2014: The first communication satellite will be produced
  • 2016: A supply mission will be launched during January (arriving October) with 2,500 kilograms (5,500 lb) of food in a 5 metres diameter variant of the SpaceX Dragon
  • 2018: An exploration vehicle will launch to pick the location of the settlement
  • 2021: Six additional Dragon capsules and another rover will launch with two living units, two life support units and two supply units.
  • 2022: A SpaceX Falcon Heavy will launch with the first group of four colonists.
  • 2023: The first colonists will arrive on Mars in modified Dragon capsule
  • 2025: A second group of four colonists will arrive
  • 2033: The colony will reach 20 settlers

Mars-One plans to build a global audience and fund this project with a reality television show.  This show would start filming the astronauts as they are selected and as they start to train between 2013 and 2023.  Mars-One claims that the astronauts would continue to be filmed during the journey to Mars, and during their stay on Mars.  Their hope is that a reality television show will galvanize the world to support this project.  However, Mars-One isn’t without competition.

SpaceX

Elon Musk started the company SpaceX with the long-term goal of establishing a permanent human colony on Mars.  Unlike Mars-One, there is no specific timeline, however, SpaceX has a massive financial advantage and a more ambitious proposal: a Martian colony 80,000 people strong.  There is no set date yet as to when this 80,000 people colony will be established, but their approach to colonization seems well developed.

Like Mars-One, Elon Musk envisions this project to begin with a pioneering mission of fewer than 10 individuals.  However, instead of starting a reality television show to raise the necessary funds, Musk plans on charging a $500,000 ticket price.  He believes that there are enough upper class individuals who would both be willing to go to Mars and pay the ticket price.  But a $500,000 ticket price alone will not get this project off the ground.  Musk is also looking for collaboration with the United States government.  He claims that if the United States contributes 0.25 per cent of GDP, $40 billion would be raised, which would cover the necessary equipment and operating costs.  However, it is yet to be seen whether the United States will support this venture, despite Musk’s vision:

“This is not the path to go to maximize riches. It’s a terrible risk adjusted return. But it’s gotta happen. I think that for me and a lot of people, America is a nation of explorers. I’d like to see that we’re expanding the frontier and moving things forward. Space is the final frontier and we have to make progress.”

— Elon Musk

Two-Planet Species?

So will Mars-One or SpaceX be successful?  Will they both achieve their goals?  At the moment I’m still unsure which project sounds more plausible.  To me, Mars-One still sounds too unbelievable to be true.  They came out of nowhere, and have goals that seem to be unachievable for such a new start up.  However, I obviously support their ambition and really hope they are successful.  SpaceX on the other hand seems to have a better organizational infrastructure in place, and a more realistic approach.  My concern for SpaceX is that the United States government will remain unwilling to assist in the funding of a permanent human settlement on Mars.

The Long Term

If either, or both projects are successful becoming a two-planet species may be our most important achievement to date.  Some may think that this is an over statement, but I am of the firm belief that it is remarkably foolish to remain a one-planet species.  As far as we know, there is nothing else like us in the entire universe.  We know that it took a process of biological evolution 3.5 billion years to produce an organism with the capability understanding the processes that created it, and ask what it means to exist.  It may be the case that entities with our capabilities are common throughout the universe, but I find it equally plausible given our current data to suggest that intelligent life is a very rare phenomenon.  If we make the right decisions, our species has the capability to do great things.  Think about the progress that has been made in just the past 100 years.  What will our descendants be achieving 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now?  Becoming a two-planet species makes us a little safer.  As Carl Sagan said: “Our remote descendants […] will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was.  How perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings.”  Early humans were far more vulnerable than we are today.  A large earthquake, volcano, or tsunami could have ended their existence.  Today, those events do not jeopardize our existence, but there are other natural phenomena that could easily end it.  Establishing a sustainable civilization on Mars makes us even safer.  It ensures that if anything catastrophic happens to Earth, we have another planetary civilization to help, and migrate to if necessary.  By colonizing, and eventually terraforming Mars, we also learn a great deal about how our species should best approach colonization at a larger scale.  For those reasons I hope that Mars-One and SpaceX are a success.  I hope that the world supports the reality television experience that develops around Mars-One.  And I hope that the United States government contributes the relatively small amount of GDP necessary to fund SpaceX.  For our species’ long-term good, there is no greater investment.

Singularity Failure

evolve

I recently read an article by computer scientist Vernor Vinge titled “What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen.”  I have become so accustomed to thinking about the future in the context of the technological singularity that this article took me by surprise.  The technological singularity is such a logical progression for complexity in the universe, that I actually think a “singularity failure” would be a stranger future than a future with a singularity.

How Could This Happen?

I think that a singularity failure would be most likely to occur if we failed to “find the soul in the hardware” (i.e., computation is not the right metaphor for what the brain does).  In this case, we may be able to continue creating increasingly complex and smaller computers, but there would be some limit to achieving ‘true’ artificial intelligence.  Furthermore, it is possible that we won’t be able to merge with technology.  Or perhaps we will encounter some physical barriers to improving computational power, and we experience project failures so deep that the only option is to quit.  To be honest, I feel like all of these scenarios are extremely unlikely.  I think the evidence indicates that a technological singularity is a near inevitability.  However, thinking about a “Long Now” without a technological singularity proved to be an interesting thought experiment.  For me, it would mean walking around in an old age home in 2050 thinking to myself “… where’s the singularity?”  But what does it mean for our species long-term?

After the “Age of Failed Dreams”

I am of the mind set that if the technological singularity doesn’t happen we will not be going to space.  By “going to space” I mean leaving our solar system.  Space is too big, and we are just not adapted (or able to adapt without merger with technology) to space.  So in my mind, if biology is where it ends, we are forced to stay on Earth.  We could potentially develop technologies that could travel to other solar systems, but for all intents and purposes our aspirations for civilization expansion would be limited to the solar system.

So if we are limited to Earth for the rest of our existence, what happens to our newly emerged global civilization?  Obviously, there is no real way to know.  But if we do not become extinct (which I think would be unlikely in the short-term) we would be spending at least a few million years here.  What type of cycles would occur for an intelligent global civilization on that time scale?  What does an intelligent civilization restricted to one planet do during a “Long Now”?  Vinge believes that if that happens we could encounter what is known as “The Wheel of Time”.

The Wheel of Time

The Wheel of Time scenario posits that even the best organized intelligent civilizations restricted to one planet for hundreds of thousands of years or millions of years will encounter several unavoidable megadisasters.  An intelligent species is extremely fragile on one planet, over millions of years it would be inevitable that even a global civilization would encounter something that would cause it to fall (or stagger).  In this Long Now, our species, or some future human-like species may experience several cycles of disasters and recovery.  Some of these cycles may produce more affluent or successful civilizations than others.  Some cycles may develop civilizations that experience golden ages that last tens of thousands of years.  Likewise, some cycles may develop civilizations that experience destructive cycles that last only a thousand or a couple hundred years.  The cycle may have no pattern, or the cycles may occur in a similar way to the natural history of life on Earth.  However, irrespective of the cycle, we would be restricted to whatever intelligence is possible with biology alone.

If we enter the 22nd century and the technological singularity does not happen, we have to seriously consider the possibility of The Wheel of Time.  To me, this is a difficult reality to be confronted with.  We would have to devise ways to understand how dangerous mutually assured destruction (MAD) really is, how much of a threat environmental change is, how fast humanity could recover from major catastrophes, and which disasters are the most difficult to recover from.  It would also be beneficial to have well protected information facilities designed to be useful for civilizations in future cycles.

Personally, if The Wheel of Time is the pattern for intelligent civilizations in this universe, my understanding of reality and complexity would be completely destabilized.  It wouldn’t just challenge what I have come to understand about progress and development, but it would also challenge my understanding of evolution and the structure of the universe.  However, as physicist Richard Feynman has said, “we have to let reality reveal itself”.  The technological singularity is a hypothesized epoch of the universe, an inevitable consequence of evolutionary selection pressures.  This may be true.  But as unlikely as I believe it to be, it may also turn out to be a failed hypothesis.

A Positive Spin on Global Warming

Global warming is a serious environmental problem that must be confronted internationally.  I havediscussed this in detail in The Ratchet.  However, I was reading a great book today by paleoclimatologist Curt Stager, Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, and he made a very interesting point that I had yet to thoughtfully contemplate.  What would global climate look like in the future if we had left our fossil fuels in the ground?  Stager explains (Stager, 2011):

“In that alternative reality our descendants would still fret about climate, sea levels, and ice caps but the news would read quite differently from that of today. “There’s a massive, destructive climatic change coming, but scientists say that we can stop it if we take appropriate action now. If we go about business as usual, coastal settlements will be destroyed by sea-level shifts and entire nations will be covered with water. Frozen water. But there’s still hope. If we simply burn enough fossil fuels, we’ll warm the atmosphere enough to delay that icy disaster for thousands of years.”

— Curt Stager

Although this does not mean that global warming is a long-term net positive for human civilization, Stager make such a devastatingly good point that we should realize some of the positive long-term aspects of our fossil fuel consumption.  Of course, there are almost no positive long-term aspects of global warming if we continue business as usual, as Hank Green of SciShow brilliantly demonstrated.  However, there still can be long-term positive aspects of fossil fuel consumption if we stop burning them and convert to renewable energy in the next few decades.

One of those positive aspects was the fact that the next scheduled Ice Age will no longer occur.  A recent study published in Nature, revealed that even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, the current interglacial period should persist (Tzedakis et al., 2012).  The researchers made that calculation by comparing our current interglacial with the several previous interglacials that have occurred in the past 2-3 million years.  If the pattern is consistent, and CO2 levels were at pre-industrial levels, we should have expected the Earth to inter an Ice Age in 1,500 years time.  We can now rest assured that our fossil fuel burning bonanza over the past 250 years has offset that natural cycle, which would have made most of North America and Eurasia unlivable.  So, it seems that we can take some positives away from our experiments with industrialization if we change now to prevent a runaway greenhouse effect.

Of course, I am not trying to downplay the severity of the problem that global warming poses to our species.  As I have said before, if we do not curb our emissions we should expect to increase carbon dioxide to 560 ppm which would result in a global temperature 2-4.5 C higher than the pre-industrial levels.  Many of the most populous cities would be underwater, superstorms would intensify, and ocean acidification would lead to the collapse of ecosystems.  Also, releasing our economies from dependence on fossil fuels is a win-win because it allows us to base our economy on near unlimited resources, as opposed to finite resources.  And despite the fact that our actions have inadvertently removed the possibility of an Ice Age in the near future, the problems we must confront because of Global Warming are still severe.  Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels now, drought and heat waves are going to seriously disrupt economic growth in areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Anyway, I thought Curt Stager brought up an interesting point, and it is an important one to consider.  The Earth’s climate changes normally and humans will always have to adapt with it in positive ways to keep improving the standard of living for our species.

References:

Stager, C.  2011.  Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth.  Toronto: Harper Collins.

Tzedakis, P.C., Channell, J.E.T., Hodell, D.A., Kleiven, H.F. & Skinner, L.C.  2012.  Determining the natural length of the current interglacial.  Nature, 5: 138-141.

 

Thinking About “The Long Now”

Does our society have a short attention span?  Or desire for immediacy?  Even though I don’t feel comfortable making temporally comparative claims about societal culture, I think most people believe that our society has adopted a culture of immediacy.  This could be reflected in our tendency to obsess over news stories in the moment, which become far removed from our collective consciousness within a few short weeks.  More generally, we seem to be mostly concerned with our own psychological present and our own geographical corner of the planet.  To be honest, I think that this has probably been true of all humans, in all cultures, in all times.  So I don’t view this cultural manifestation in our society as a degradation of any kind.  This is important because I believe narratives of societal degradation are all too often being formed from anecdotal and personal experience, and very rarely reflect our actual progress as a species.  Either way, I often wish that we embraced a culture that incorporated deeper scales of time and larger scales of geography into our perspective on a day-to-day basis.

But I am not the only one.  The Long Now Foundation is an organization established in 1996 that seeks to become very long-term institution, and provide humanity with a slower/better way of thinking.  In order to do this they engage in activities like the Rosetta Project and the Long Bet Project.  The Rosetta Project attempts to preserve all the world’s languages so that we have records of them in the distant future.  The Long Bet Project is focused on making competitive predictions with interest to society that will get people thinking more about future development.  For example, Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, has proposed the human population in 2060 will be less than it is today. You can challenge him if you disagree.  All the money at stake is philanthropic.  However, their most ambitious project is building The Clock of the Long Now.

Danny Hillis, co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, first proposed the Clock of the Long Now in 1986.  At the moment there is 2m prototype at the Science Museum in London.  He wants the clock to be able to embody deep time for our species.  As Hillis explained: “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year.  The century hand advanced once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium.  I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years.” (Brand, 1999).  Such a clock would be designed to embody deep time for all humans.  The people working on this project believe the Clock of the Long Now can embed the idea of long-term thinking in the popular consciousness because it would invite people to engage with deep time personally.  The founders compare the experience to contemplating the crushing scale of time one encounters when looking at the Grand Canyon.  However, we have become accustomed to thinking of geologic and/or astronomical structures to contemplate deep time, the Long Now Clock could change that.  The clock would embody four hundred generations on a human scale (Brand, 1999).  If the clock achieved its goal, long-term thinking would become more automatic and common in human culture.

For me, this is an interesting project.  It is one of the first examples of a human institution that is actively striving for relevance on more of a geologic time scale, as opposed to a human time scale.  This type of thinking could inspire a different culture, as Kevin Kelly said: “If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest?”  Will it force everyone to ask: “Are we being good ancestors?” (Brand, 1999).  However, this might only be the beginning of human institutions inspired by scientific concepts and ways of thinking that force us to reconsider our long-term relationship to the planet in real ways.  I think that as our species continues to lengthen human lifespan, our traditional concepts of the human ageing process will deteriorate, and long-term thinking should become more and more pervasive.  This perspective stems from my own personal attempt to exercise long-term thinking.  What happens if technological futurists are right and we experience a technological singularity?  How will our species think in the year 2100 when human consciousness can exist for centuries, as opposed to decades?

Overall, the Clock of the Long Now represents an important idea, and could help human cultures adapt notions of long-term thinking more easily.  As opposed to thinking about our species on the scale of our own personal lifetime, let’s start thinking about our species on the scale of civilization’s lifetime.  Human civilization has been around for roughly 10,000 years.  Can civilization endure another 10,000 years?  What have the trends of the past 10,000 years taught us about the way civilization rises and falls?  What have we learned about technological evolution?  Can past trends be extrapolated to accurately estimate future realities?  Hopefully these are questions that the Clock of the Long Now can inspire in all of us.

References

Brand, S.  1999.  The Clock of the Long Now.  New York: Basic Books.