I read Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life as a followup to The Hidden Life of Trees. I wanted to get deeper into the fungal side of the forest’s story. However, mycorrhizal relationships are just a small part of what this book explores.
For me the wildest parts of this story had to do with the ability of fungi to process information and react appropriately. They appear to be more actively engaged in the world than plants, and in some ways almost resemble animals. This study published in Nature in 2019 found that fungi had a sense of direction and some kind of memory. The researchers put a small block of wood inoculated with a fungus into an environment where it could grow and explore and eventually discover another block of wood. Then they’d remove the original block of wood and put it in a new environment, and they found that the mycelium would continue preferentially growing and exploring in the direction that had led to the “bait” before!
After reading Metazoa I wanted to explore a different branch of our phylogenetic tree, and so picked up The Hidden Life of Trees. It’s a bunch of short anecdotes about the ecology of European beech forests, which is an awfully niche thing to write a book about. But then it did make the NY Times bestseller list in 2016.
I knew that this book probably wasn’t written for me, but the material is definitely cool, and I wanted to compare its style with Metazoa. Both books are trying to communicate a collection of scientific findings that border on the mystical. What makes a mind? How do ancient trees communicate through a living internet? And they both end up anthropomorphizing their very non-human subjects. Peter Godfrey-Smith makes it very clear up front that he’s a materialist. Wohlleben is much harder to pin down. I was never able to tell if he literally believes the things he’s saying, or if it’s a literary device. Normally this would get some eyerolls from me, but like I said, I don’t think I’m the intended audience. Clearly the book connected with a huge audience and successfully diffused these ideas into public consciousness.
Forests are much more communicative and cooperative communities than we’d previously thought, filled with an almost social drama playing out over centuries instead of decades. Different species share both information and materials, sometimes with kin, sometimes more generally. The fungi link together different individual organisms, and extract minerals as well. Mother trees sustain their offspring in the darkness below the canopy, so they are ready to leap toward the light when the time comes. Fire clears out the underbrush and makes minerals easily available, triggering the release of seeds. Forests migrate south en masse as the glaciers advance, but some species can get trapped, unable to climb over the Alps, and are wiped out locally. It’s a seething, adaptive civilization that you can only see through time lapse eyes.
Metazoa is kind of a sequel to “Other Minds”, Godfrey-Smith’s excellent book about the nature of cephalopod intelligence. Metazoa takes a broader view, and explores the nature of minds in general, and how they’re inextricably linked to the animal way-of-being: having a unified, unitary body that can sense and react to the world around it. It was also an interesting book to read in combination with Sean B. Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” about animal body plans, and how they evolved through the use of gene regulatory networks and a meta-genetic toolkit that we share with all bilaterians.
This author kind of feels like a Carl Sagan of Marine Biology — very clearly trying to understand the world within a Materialist / Naturalist framework (which I appreciate) but without losing a sense of the mystical nature of existence. He’s asking “What kind of thing is a mind?” and “How can that kind of thing arise through evolution and be composed of nothing but a particular collection of matter and energy?” Why does this happen at all? How general or common a phenomenon is it?
A good seminar by Kevin Anderson (former head of the Tyndall Center for Climate Research in the UK), exploring the conflicts between our stated goal of keeping global warming under 2°C, and the actual energy and emissions policies that the developed world adopts:
The basic point he’s making is, the assumptions that are currently going into climate policy discussions are unrealistic, with respect to what’s required to meet a 2°C goal, even 50% of the time. They require global emissions peaks in 2015 and eventually negative emissions, in order to be able to accommodate the 3-4% annual emissions declines that the economists (which he likes to call astrologers) say is compatible with continued economic growth. But a global peak in 2015 is at this point outlandish from China or India or Brazil or South Africa’s point of view. To give them even a tiny bit of breathing room, and treat our historical emissions even somewhat equitably, the developed world has to peak roughly now, and decline at more like 10% per year for decades, and the developing world has to follow our lead shortly thereafter (maybe 2025).
None of this is compatible with exploitation of any unconventional fuels (tar sands, shale gas, etc.). And, he argues, it also isn’t likely to be compatible with reliance on market based instruments, given that we need to implement drastically non-marginal changes to the economy.
From the all-too-rare genre of mathematical-political satire: Using Metadata to find Paul Revere. Highlighting for the uninitiated just how much actual information is really contained in even a wee sliver of the so-called metadata we smear all over the digital universe in our wake. Applied to the Founding Fathers.
Refining metal ores is one of those things that’s really, really hard to do without emitting a huge amount of greenhouse gasses. The energy sources behind our material economies are not as easily substitutable with renewables, because what they often require is extreme heat, and sometimes the carbon itself (in the case of steelmaking and concrete). Researchers at MIT are looking at a way of directly refining molten iron oxide directly into pure iron electrolytically that results in very pure iron, and virtually no emissions, and it might work for other oxide refining processes as well.
A fun look at our transition to a Gattaca style future, through the lens of an evildoer, designing a customized pathogen meant to kill only the President, using the same tools that can be used to target a particular cancer with a viral drug delivery mechanism. How quickly will these tools be democratized? Is secrecy or transparency the better route to countermeasures? The Wikileaks cables revealed top-level diplomatic directives to collect the DNA of world leaders. For what purpose? Is it possible for anyone to keep their genome private?
A Love Story And A Clearance Sale, musings of an arctic sea ice researcher on the fact that he will probably outlive the object of his professional affections. A minimum of zero sea ice appears likely between 2015 and 2020, and models suggest that once you get to a minimum of zero, the ice-free season is likely to expand quickly, with significant impacts to northern hemisphere weather patterns.
It turns out that there’s a rare variant of a gene involved in Alzheimer’s Disease that protects the carriers against age-related cognitive decline. It even, apparently, protects against other known genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s. This is totally the kind of thing I can imagine parents paying big bucks to have inserted into their kids — rare genes that already exist in the broader population, that confer disease resistance or other advantages, but which haven’t had time to become prevalent under natural selection, or which confer an advantage that won’t have obvious reproductive consequences. We’re going to start accumulating a library of these potential genetic revisions and, I suspect, within a couple of decades, making sure that our descendants carry them disproportionately.