18 318 Kilometres In The Wrong Direction

What does direction mean? It seems to be related to angles. For instance, north is often considered to be at zero degrees, partly for the sake of argument. Okay, so how about this?

(I don’t know how to draw a straight line in Gallery on this Chromebook).

This is a roughly straight line drawn on a north-centred azimuthal equidistant projection of Earth between the English Midlands and the approximate position of Tāmaki Makaurau, also known as Auckland, in Aotearoa, also known as New Zealand.

Now try it the other way round:

(Again, wobbly line). From these two maps, if you head roughly north from the English Midlands, you may well end up, eventually, in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Likewise, if you head roughly south from Aotearoa, you might end up in the English Midlands. I should point out also that the first map is also how people who believe Earth is flat often view the shape of what we think of as this planet, so in a sense this isn’t even about what shape Earth is.

More conventionally, people are satisfied that Earth is round. Okay, so where is Aotearoa relative to the English Midlands according to the round Earth? Well, there’s this:

. . . and there’s this:

Hence this is something flat Earthers and globe Earthers can agree on for once: New Zealand is north of Britain, and Britain is south of Aotearoa. It isn’t exactly north-south of course, but it’s pretty close. It’s also true that New Zealand is further south than Britain, that Britain is further north than Aotearoa and, that New Zealand is south of the equator and that Britain is north of the equator.

Why am I saying this though? Isn’t it complete nonsense? How can I possibly say Aotearoa is north of Britain? Surely once you go past the North Pole from any location on Earth, you’ve started heading south, and likewise, once you’ve gone past the South Pole, you’ve started heading north? Well, yes. However, there is a good reason for this direction. I can’t vouch for the Antarctica-centred map and can only vouch slightly for the Arctic-centred one, but as far as Google Earth is concerned I absolutely can vouch for the fact that the route taken by that line across Earth’s surface is a good approximation of the shortest surface route between Britain and New Zealand. If you’d asked me before I tried, I would’ve said that the shortest route between the two archipelagos was probably one that went across Eurasia, which is incidentally where commercial plane flights tend to go I think, but it isn’t. No, the shortest route is across the Arctic and eastern Siberia, including Svalbard and the Kamchatka Peninsula. Hence Aotearoa is south of here, but it’s also in a northerly direction from here. If it were feasible to travel via the shortest surface route from here, one would have to head almost exactly north. It’s also notable that more than half of it is across the Pacific Ocean.

The reason for all this counterintuitivity, of course, is that New Zealand is practically on the other side of the world from us, but “only” practically. There is only ever one point on the opposite side of the planet at any one time, and mathematically speaking the probability of anything in particular being exactly there is zero. This is different from a disc, because the entire circumference of that shape is as far as it can possibly be from the centre, which is an infinite number of locations. Unlike a spheroidal Earth, there’s a difference between “as far as it can possibly be” and “on the other side of”. Aotearoa is close to being on the other side of Earth, and that’s the same as as far as it can possibly be from us, but that isn’t so on a disc. On the disc with the North Pole at the centre, the furthest possible point from England is somewhere in Antarctica, and the furthest possible point from New Zealand is likewise in Antarctica. On the South Pole-centred map those points are in the Arctic. However, they are in fact, in both cases, at the poles of a round planet.

Leaving all that to one side (or the other), this is why Aotearoa is to our north rather than to our south. The antipodes of New Zealand are actually mainly in Spain. Here’s a map of the world with its antipodes:

Zooming in on Aotearoa yields this:

Hence New Zealand is actually not, strictly speaking, on the other side of the world from Britain. There are even some settlements which are exactly on the other side of the world here, meaning that they are technically in all directions from each other – Jaén and Hamilton, for example, “surround” each other. This doesn’t happen very often because in spite of being dominated by our species, our planet is still almost empty of it. This is partly because in any case

But why is this important? Surely this is just a weird technicality which matters to no-one, isn’t it? Actually no. It’s practically impossible to travel from here to Aotearoa, or the other way, without causing a massive increase to one’s carbon footprint. As far as I know, the usual air route from London to Auckland/Tāmaki Makaurau goes via Singapore and is roughly 19 290 kilometres, which is about five percent further, though still not exactly halfway round the world, which ought to be exactly 20 000 kilometres due to the way the metre is defined but is in fact not. Consequently Singapore is actually slightly north of east of London, but predominantly east even though it’s in the Southern Hemisphere and London is in the northern half of the Northern one. Once again this is counterintuitive. The difference between the two distances is almost exactly the same as London to Lerwick. You can almost fit a whole “British Isles” in that distance. Sadly, this still isn’t very much compared to the whole distance. However, if one were to walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats, which again is almost exactly that distance, it would be considered far more ecologically sound than travelling by plane. It’s like “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”.

What about going by sea? Well, unsurprisingly, it depends. If you’re on a cruise ship, it’s not good, as they’re notoriously environmentally unfriendly. On a small yacht, the situation is considerably different, but it’s still really difficult, not least because one would either be going via the Cape of Good Hope or the Gulf of Aden, the former of which is dangerous because the Southern Ocean is such a beast and the latter because of the risk of piracy. That isn’t good either. Incidentally, I don’t know if it makes more sense to sail west or east.

Next option: overland. This is not really possible for a lot of people because of the danger of violence against people in marginalised groups. Being able to get there mainly overland is a sign of privilege. And I can also imagine a conversation where someone in such a marginalised group is attacked for going by plane by someone who is privileged enough to do that. Going by yacht is probably similar, though perhaps not always. Either method also takes a huge chunk of time which many people wouldn’t be able to manage. Another, unfortunately unavailable method would be to go by airship, which would be relatively slow. If available, it would take a week non-stop at the highest speed an airship can move.

There is, however, the possibility of mixed methods. Athens is 2450 kilometres from London, by a rather simplified route which accounts neither for rail travel nor shipping, but this actually takes off quite a bit more than the Arctic route would compared to the route via Singapore. It is, however, still 17 470 kilometres, which is the shortest possibility so far except that the sum of the distances is actually the furthest at 19 920, practically half way around the world. There would be a trade-off due to surface travel but it’s still only an eighth less. It gets harder at the other end because Aotearoa is so far from Australia.

What, then, is the actual damage? How big is the carbon footprint of a flight between Heathrow to Auckland airports? According to this site, a round trip would generate 6.4 tonnes of CO2 using economy class. That sounds like a horrifying amount, but proportionately it’s only a little more than a car would produce. The average car would do that after 52 000 kilometres, and the trip is effectively around the world, i.e. 40 000 kilometres (or forty megametres – why don’t we ever use that unit?). That said, it wouldn’t actually be a good thing to drive that far either.

The obvious response to this is carbon offsetting. Unfortunately this is kind of like Papal indulgences, as in, “I’m going to sin anyway so please help me feel better about it”. Carbon offsetting can be doubled of course, so it may not just leave one in the same position as if one hadn’t got on a plane in the first place. However, this is only one possible approach. It’s also possible to compensate for the trip by reducing one’s own environmental impact permanently and doing one’s best to persuade others to do the same. Doing one’s best is complicated. It doesn’t mean ranting on the street or social media to insist on getting people to do likewise in a self-righteous manner, and it might also be easier to do it if one has the right rhetorical skills. Being able to offset at all in this manner is once again a mark of privilege.

Thus far, this is rather consequentialist. Not everyone’s ethical universe looks like this. Rights and duties are another way of seeing this. One thing I haven’t mentioned at all here is why someone might travel from Britain to New Zealand and back. For instance, methinks it’s really mean to lay all this on someone whose mother is dying in Aotearoa and wants to see her child one last time. Less severe possibilities also arise. The whole time I’ve been writing this, I’ve felt like I was being too judgemental. Sometimes it’s just okay to do this. Sometimes one feels one owes another person something, but again this gets complex. It’s a sign of depression that one takes on too much responsibility in the sense that a guilt complex might follow one around for a minor or forgotten misdemeanour. What would be a sufficient obligation to lead to this? Clearly they do exist. For instance, it really could make sense for the British Prime Minister to visit New Zealand for the purposes of negotiation, depending of course on what they were negotiating, and assuming they couldn’t just do it via Zoom. Most people, however, are not prime ministers or heads of state, and much of what certain heads of state do isn’t actually good either.

Another reason for going there for some people might be asylum. In such a case, it really feels like there is no reasonable objection to flying there at all, since it could be life or death. But when might you know if it is?

I don’t have answers for this really. I could go on and on and frequently do. It’s often better to do something rather than overthink it, and I am very good at overthinking. In this case, maybe it really is better to overthink it rather than do it. In writing this, yes I have generated a fair bit of carbon dioxide, but I very much doubt it’s as much as a round trip to Aotearoa. But the jury is out.

Sodding Phosphorus!

Here is a sample of the aforesaid element:

Phosphorus has two main forms, or allotropes. When first extracted, it’s white and extremely toxic. The form illustrated above is red phosphorus of course. Left to itself, white phosphorus gradually turns into its red form, which is why the so-called “white” allotrope usually looks yellow:

This is not, however, supposed to be “all about phosphorus”. Rather, it’s about two issues which affect the element, both to do with life, one on this planet and one in the Universe generally.

I’ll start by explaining the importance of phosphorus to life as we know it. There are six elements making up most of the body of a living organism on Earth. These are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus. Carbon is important because it can form chains and rings from which complex molecules can be built. It’s notable that even though silicon is far more abundant on this planet than carbon, life is nonetheless carbon-based. This is to do with things like carbon’s ability to link itself into chains, form double and triple bonds with other atoms, the fact that its atoms are small compared to silicon and the difficulty of getting silicon out of molecules such as silica which may be formed as a result of any putative biochemical processes. Carbon dioxide, the analogue of silicon, is a gas at fairly low temperatures and can be incorporated into other structures. It so happens that I do think silicon-based life is possible, but it would have to be created artificially and exist in some kind of closed environment whose contents were carefully selected. The chances of silicon-based life arising without intelligent intervention are very low. The greater terrestrial abundance of another element should be considered again here, but not right now. Hydrogen and oxygen are of course the constituents of water, a compound which is really unusual in many ways, such as its unusually high melting and boiling points on the surface of this planet, its ability to dissolve other compounds and the fact that it gets less dense as it cools below 4°C. These properties mean respectively that the chemical reactions needed for life as we know it can occur at a temperature where there’s enough energy for them to take place but not so much that they’d be unstable, that the compounds are in a liquid medium conducive to reactions in the first place and that the oceans, lakes and rivers don’t freeze solid from the bottom up. The two constituents are useful in their own right. Oxygen and hydrogen are components of countless compounds, including carbohydrates, amino acids, proteins and fats. Oxygen, unlike chlorine which has been considered as a possible alternate breathing gas for alien life, can form two bonds, meaning that it isn’t the dead end single-bonding atom which the halogens are. Nitrogen is a essential component of protein via its presence in amino acids. Amino acids have a carbon connected to a carboxyl group and an amino group, which can bond together to form chains, and a functional group such as a benzene ring or a sulphur atom which can have other biological functions. Proteins, in other words. There are also chemicals called alkaloids which occur mainly in plants and vary a lot, which have striking pharmacological effects, and the nucleotides are also rings containing nitrogen, encoding genes in DNA and RNA. Nitrogen is actually so reactive that it bonds strongly to other atoms, including other nitrogen atoms, and consequently it’s vital that various organisms can uncouple it and combine it for the benefit of the rest of the biosphere. This is known as nitrogen fixation and is performed mainly by bacteria and certain plants, and also by lightning, but if life had to rely on lightning to do this, it would not be widespread and nitrogen fixed by lightning would be the limiting factor in global biomasse. Sulphur is significantly found in a couple of amino acids and allows proteins to form more complex shapes as are needed, for example, by enzymes and hormone receptors, because they form bridges with other amino acids making the molecule tangle usefully together. It’s also found in hair, nails and various other substances such as the substances responsible for the smell of garlic and onions. Sulphur is actually a bit of an exception in the chief elements required for life because sometimes it can be substituted by either selenium or tellurium, and there are amino acids which have these elements in sulphur’s place, but both of them are much scarcer than sulphur.

Then there’s phosphorus. Phosphorus has more limited functions than the others but these are incredibly vital. It forms part of adenosine triphosphate, which organisms use to transfer energy from respiration to the other functions of the body. It also forms part of the double layers of molecules which form membranes and allow controlled and specialised environments to exist in which the chemical reactions essential to life take place, and also enables substances to be packaged, as with neurotransmitters. Thirdly, it forms the strands of sugar phosphate which hold DNA and RNA together, so even if it didn’t do anything else, some kind of method would have to exist to store genetic information. This is perhaps the least vital role though. A more restricted role is found in most vertebrates, in that it forms part of the mineral matrix of bones and teeth, but there’s plenty of life that doesn’t do this and the usual substances used to make hard parts of animals are silicates and calcium carbonate, among other rarer examples such as iron pyrite. Nonetheless, humans need phosphorus for that reason too, as do our close relatives. However, even the closely related sea urchins use calcium carbonate instead.

Hence several facts emerge from all this. One is that an apparently similar and more abundant element can’t necessarily be used for a similar function, assuming here that life can start from scratch. Another is that elements can get themselves into such a strongly bound state that it would take too much energy to use them for it to be worth it for life. A third is that life will sometimes substitute another element for the one it usually employs if it can. If a rare element is used, there’s usually a good reason for it.

Now the first problem with phosphorus is that it’s much more abundant inside a living thing than in its non-living environment, and the cycle that replenishes it is very slow. Phosphorus usually becomes available to the biosphere on land as a result of continental drift, the formation of mountains and erosion and weathering, and it’s lost to the land when it’s washed into rivers and the sea, where it disappears into sediment before becoming available again millions of years later. In the sea, it’s less of a problem but still a significant one because it’s only available to life as phosphates and it’s often found as phosphides instead. Ironically, there’s also an overabundance problem with phosphates in fertilisers being washed into bodies of water and leading to algal blooms, which can in fact be of cyanobacteria rather than algæ as such. Since some microörganisms can produce extremely powerful toxins, this can lead to massive marine die-offs and contaminated sea food. Where I live, a nearby reservoir was afflicted by an algal bloom and had to be closed off for quite some time, and this can also poison wildlife on land. These can also lead to high biochemical oxygen demand, which is where all the oxygen gets used up and the water becomes anoxic, which is incidentally a cause of mass extinctions, though on a much larger scale, in the oceans. This happens because phosphorus is relatively scarce and a significant limiting factor in how much life is possible in a given area, so a sudden influx of usable phosphate is likely to cause a chemical imbalance.

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus, Joseph Wright, 1771 and 1795.

This painting is thought to refer to the discovery of the element by Hennig Brand in 1669. Brand discovered it when searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, by heating boiled down urine and collecting the liquid which dripped off it. It turns out that this is actually quite an inefficient process and it’s possible to extract a lot more of the phosphorus by other means. The allotrope illustrated in the painting is unfortunately the highly toxic and dangerous white variety, so the alchemist is putting himself in peril by kneeling so close to the retort. The point to remember in all this is that phosphorus is found in urine, not in huge amounts but enough. This points towards a particular problem, highlighted by Isaac Asimov in his 1971 essay ‘Life’s Bottleneck’, which points out that humans “may be able to substitute nuclear power for coal, and plastics for wood, and yeast for meat, and friendliness for isolation—but for phosphorus there is neither substitute nor replacement”. Urine goes down the toilet and is flushed into the sewers, processed in sewage farms and the phosphorus from it ends up in the sea. It does gradually return to the land in biological ways. For instance, a seagull may die on land and her bones may become part of the terrestrial ecosystem, or she might just poo everywhere and return it that way, but the occasional gull or tern conking out in Bridlington is no compensation for millions of people flushing the loo several times a day. By doing this, we are gradually removing phosphorus from the land and returning it to the sea, whence it won’t return on the whole for millions of years.

Two ways round this suggest themselves. One is to eat more sea food. For a vegan, this is unfeasible and in any case fishing causes a lot of plastic pollution and is unsustainable, but of course it is possible to eat seaweed, and I do this. The other is not to allow urine into sewage in the first place or to process sewage differently. I have been in the habit of dumping urine in the garden, although I haven’t done this as much recently. It also contains potassium, and in particular fixed nitrogen, so in diluted form it is indeed useful for raising crops. However, this is on a small scale and a better system might be to process the sewage differently and put it on the land, being careful to ensure that harmful microbes and medication have been neutralised before doing so. Regarding seaweed, dulse, for example, is 3% of the RDI of phosphorus by dried weight, compared to the much lower amounts in most fish. Cuttlefish is the highest marine animal source. Human urine averages 0.035%, so you’d have to eat a lot of seaweed. However, in isolation, if you don’t, there will be a constant loss of phosphorus to the land. Guano is one solution, but not ideal and only slowly renewable.

The other problem with phosphorus follows from the same scarcity and the same use in living systems, but is more cosmic in scale, and I personally find it more worrying: phosphorus is rare on a cosmic level. In a way, all atomic matter is rare in this sense because the Universe is, as the otherwise really annoying Nick Land once said, “a good try at nothing” (apparently nobody has ever quoted that before, so that’s a first!). The cosmic abundance of the different elements looks like this:

The Y axis is a logarithmic scale, so for instance hydrogen is about ten times as abundant as helium and even in terms of mass is more common than any other element except helium. One notable thing about this graph other than the clear rapid decline in abundance with atomic number (the X axis) is that it zig-zags because even-numbered elements are more frequently found than their odd-numbered neighbours. This is because many elements are formed by the collision of α particles, which consist of two protons and two neutrons. Phosphorus is flanked by Silicon and Sulphur on here, though it isn’t specifically marked, and its atomic number is fifteen, i.e. an odd number. Chlorine, which is quite common in living things because it’s part of salt, is less common still.

Elements are formed in various ways, and this relates to how common they are. The Big Bang led to the formation of mainly hydrogen and helium a few minutes later, as soon as the Universe was cool enough to allow their nuclei to hold together and their nucleons to form, although they would’ve been ionised for quite some time rather than being actual atoms. Small amounts of lithium and beryllium formed in the same way, and if the graph is anything to go by this looks like it might’ve been the main way beryllium in particular formed. Then the stars formed and the pressure inside them led to helium nuclei in particular being pushed together to form heavier elements. The crucial step in this phase is the formation of calcium when three helium nuclei collide. Then, a number of other things happen. The star may end up going supernova and scattering its heavier elements through the local galactic neighbourhood. It may also form new elements in the process of exploding through radiation. This was until fairly recently thought to be the main means heavier elements were formed, but another way has recently been discovered. When a star not quite massive enough to become a black hole collapses, it forms into what is effectively a giant atomic nucleus the size of a city known as a neutron star. When these collide, they kind of “splat” into lots of droplets. Neutrons are only stable within atomic nuclei. Outside them they last about a quarter of an hour before breaking down, and they often become protons in doing so. This means that many of the neutronium droplets form into heavier elements, which are then pushed away by an unimaginably powerful neutrino burst from the neutron stars and again scattered into the galactic neighbourhood. Two elements, beryllium and boron, are mainly formed by cosmic rays splitting heavier atoms. Some, particularly transition metals such as chromium and manganese, formed in white dwarf stars which then exploded, and technetium along with all the heaviest elements, have been generated by human activity.

At first, the abundance of phosphorus didn’t seem to be a big problem. However, after studying supernova remnants, scientists at Cardiff University seem to have found that there is a lot less produced in supernova than had been previously thought. This means that phosphorus is likely only to be as common as it is here in this solar system in star systems which formed near the right kind of supernova to generate it in relatively large amounts. Couple this with the essential function of phosphorus in DNA, RNA, membranes and ATP, particularly the last, and it seems to mean that at this point in the history of the Universe, life as is well-known on Earth is likely only to be found in initially localised areas, surrounded by vast tracts of lifeless space. The systems containing life would gradually separate and spread out through the Galaxy due to the migration of the stars as they orbit the centre of the Milky Way, but they would remain fairly sparse. However, as time goes by and the Universe ages, there will be more such supernovæ and phosphorus will slowly become more common, making our kind of life increasingly likely. If life always does depend on phosphorus, we may simply be unusually early in the history of the Universe, and in many æons time there will be much more life. This possible limitation may have another consequence. We may be living in a star system isolated from others which are higher than average in phosphorus, meaning that to exist as biological beings with a viable ecosystem around us elsewhere, we would either have to take enough phosphorus with us or make our own, and even the several light years between stars which we already find intimidating is dwarfed by the distances between phosphorus-rich systems in the Galaxy, which may once have been near us but no longer are, and not only do we have to schlep ourselves across the void, but also we have to take a massive load of phosphorus with us wherever we go.

But that is biological life as we know it. A couple of other thoughts occur. One is that there could conceivably be life as we don’t know it. This doesn’t work as well if the substitution of phosphorus is the main difference, because if that could happen, it presumably would’ve happened with us, and it didn’t, because other elements with similar functions would’ve worked better if they were more abundant and out-competed with the life which actually did arise unless there’s something about this planet which does something else like lock the possible other options away chemically or something. However, there could just be drastically different life, based perhaps on plasma instead of solid and liquid matter on planets and moons, which has no need for phosphorus or even chemistry, on nuclear reactions taking place between nucleons on the surface of a neutron star as suggested by Robert L Forward’s SF book ‘Dragon’s Egg’, or even nuclear pasta inside neutron stars. Maybe it isn’t that life is rare in the Universe, but that life as we know it is, partly because it needs to use phosphorus.

There is another possibility. We are these flimsy wet things crawling about a planet somewhere in the Galaxy, but we’ve also made machines. In our own history, we are the results of genes, and perhaps also mitochondria and flagella, concealing themselves inside cells and proceeding to build, through evolution, relatively vast multicellular machines to protect themselves. Maybe history is about to repeat itself and we are going to build our own successors, or perhaps symbionts, in the form of AI spacecraft which go out into the Universe and reproduce. Perhaps machine life is common in the Galaxy and we’re just the precursors. There is an obvious problem with this though, mentioned a long time ago: what’s to stop swarms of self-replicating interstellar probes from dismantling planets and moons and making trillions of copies of themselves? If this arises through a mutated bug in their software, it would be to their advantage, and they could be expected to be by far the most widespread “life” in the Universe. Yet this doesn’t seem to have happened. If it hasn’t, maybe the beings which built these machines never existed either. Or maybe they’re just more responsible than we are.

Tadpoles And Other Tadpoles

As you probably know what I mean by “other tadpoles”, some of them anyway, this may well turn out to be Not Safe For Work, although I’m not sure.

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Our evolution is curious. Well, evolution in general is curious in fact. Way back in the day, in Devonian times or perhaps a bit later, there were animals who started off as gelatinous eggs in fresh water, escaped those eggs as swimming animals with large, globular head-torso parts and tails projecting behind their cloacæ. I have to admit to being not entirely clear as to why tadpole tails are like that rather than having fish-like caudal fins, particularly considering that fish living in the same habitat do have them, but this is nonetheless so. These tadpoles sprout limbs and develop lungs, and often end up climbing out of the water. Sometimes they also lose their tails. This is of course common knowledge. See? I can do it, occasionally.

As the ages ground on, some such animals developed the ability to secrete a shell around these eggs and provide their young with a tiny, usually private, pond to live in rather than share the space with predators, and this also enabled them to lay eggs on land. Some of these, and in fact also some amphibians, retained the eggs within their bodies and simply gave birth to smaller versions of themselves, so that the private pond was within their bodies. Despite all this change, early stages of vertebrate life still included tadpoles. We have all been tadpoles at some point in our lives, though not swimming around independently anywhere in humans’ case.

This is quite a remarkable thing in itself, but it’s more remarkable that this is a further clue to our evolution as vertebrates. Humans and other vertebrates are deuterostomes, named because their embryos develop mouths second, after their cloacæ or ani, and we have various features in common such as the way our eggs divide and the fact that early cells can be separated and grown into complete individuals. This finishes after the thirty-two cell stage, but it means that in the Brave New World scenario it would be quite straightforward to produce thirty-two clones from each zygote, although actually rearing them in artificial wombs for more than a very short period of time is not possible with existing tech. Human embryos can grow for about a fortnight outside a human being, the record for survival for a premature baby is twenty-two weeks and it’s possible for a lamb fetus to be kept in an artificial womb for a month before birth. Then there’s this rather disturbing patent diagram:

Hmm. . .

There are some good reasons for doing this. For instance, it could be used to help people who can’t have a baby together for various reasons to have one, but Aldous Huxley did such an excellent hatchet job on the idea that almost a century later we’re still reeling from the yuck factor. The really obvious problem with it aside from what I suppose could be described as body horror is that some kind of organisation would probably be in charge of it, and if that were so it would end up either having too much power over other people’s ability to reproduce or be able to make its own babies, and either of those things is way too powerful a lever on society. The artificial womb is very like a weapon of mass destruction. Once it’s been invented, it becomes necessary to reinvent everything about society that might lead to it being abused. You basically have to scrap all of our ways of relating to each other and go back to the drawing board in order to ensure that there cannot be any way in which it could make things a lot worse than they already are. It’s an excessive concentration of power in the hands of the few.

Anyway, in the early stages of this device, there’d be a tadpole in item#20, kind of, for a few weeks. The same applies to any other mammal, bird, non-avian reptile and reptile, and there would be varying levels of difficulty keeping such animals alive in each of these examples. By the time you consider amphibians though, it’s easy enough that a child can do it, and they frequently do. I was such a child. It raises the issue of animal exploitation of course, but I can imagine some kind of training course starting in primary school with frog tadpoles, moving on to duck-billed platypus embryos in college and finally graduating to human babies in medical school. But to paraphrase Michael Crichton, just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.

I’ve been afflicted by one quandary regarding tadpole development since primary school. I’d already raised frog tadpoles by something like 1977, so I knew their hind legs developed before their forelimbs and assumed from that that the same was true of newts and salamanders, but my primary school teacher insisted that this was not the case for newts, whose forelimbs developed first. I’ve long felt dubious about this but according to this film, at around 6:50, this is what happens. Presumably frogs’ hind limbs develop earlier because they’re longer and more muscular, which makes me wonder about toads.

There is a famous diagram about tadpoles which turned out to be fraudulent, drawn by Ernst Haeckel:

This is supposed to show that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, that is, that the development of embryonic animals follows their course of evolution, meaning that they all start off as tadpoles and only later develop their distinctive characteristics. This has been adopted, adapted and copied ever since it was first published in 1874, and I can remember seeing it in a children’s encyclopædia exactly a century later. However, unfortunately this is said to be a misleading illustration, and the confusion regarding it has been exploited by creationists, with the result that reliable information on it is hard to come by. As it stands, the above image shows signs of being influenced by the “chain of being” misconception of evolution as progress rather than change supervening on mutation and alteration of conditions. The detail of which pair of limbs develops first is a case in point here. If embryos really did develop in accord with how they had evolved, all amphibian tadpoles would have the same pattern of limb development. Either all their limbs would appear at once or one pair would always appear before the other. This doesn’t happen because although frogs’ ancestors had short hindlimbs, they now have more developed hind limbs than forelimbs, so it’s to do with how they’ve already evolved.

There is, however, some factual basis to the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in the case of tadpoles, because in fact these forms have existed for longer than there have been amphibians or even fish, whatever they are. As I’ve already mentioned, vertebrates are deuterostomes. We have various features in common, and chordates, the slightly larger phylum to which craniates and vertebrates, usually the same thing, belong, are accompanied by two minor phyla, the acorn and arrow worms and the major phylum, the echinoderms, who are salt-water living and usually pentamerously symmetrical animals like starfish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. There at least has been a subsidiary and unpopular theory that chordates are actually ancestral to echinoderms, but on the whole they’re considered either ancestral to us or a sister clade. Chordates have three subphyla: tunicata, vertebrata (craniata is a similar grouping which has been used to include hagfish in the uncertainty of whether they had spines) and cephalochordata. The last group is the lancelets, slightly fish-like animals who lack brains and proper eyes but do have other features of chordates such as muscle blocks, pharyngeal clefts (these often become gills), a stiffening dorsal notochord and a post-anal tail. In spite of being like fish, lancelets are not ancestral to us and are the out-group among chordates. Notochords and pharyngeal clefts are lost in humans, many other land vertebrates and other vertebrates with land-living ancestors, and humans also only have internal tails. However, as embryos we do have all the features and these define chordates. The interesting group from the perspective of tadpole discussion is the tunicates, which are more diverse than cephalochordates and include the salps, larvaceans and sea squirts. Larvacea are, well, this is a larvacean:

By Dr. Thomas Clarke / RedEnsign at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2556112

This is Oikopleura dioica, who live in oceans, reproduce sexually, as the name suggests and are killed by the process of releasing their eggs. They are sexual, as the name indicates, and spend their whole lives as tadpoles. They also secrete a carbohydrate house around themselves, hence again the name. This practice is found in all tunicates, again being suggested by their names. But the point is, they’re tadpoles and larvacea may be ancestral to all vertebrates.

Salps are worth mentioning in passing although they’re not directly ancestral. They are practically invisible animals which float through the ocean in chains or cylinders with cloacæ entering into a central space and filter-feeding on their external surfaces. I’ve previously mentioned lanternfish, who are so numerous that there are a million of them for every human on the planet. Well, salps are also exceedingly numerous, particularly in the Southern Ocean, and their fæces are important to the carbon cycle as they sink to the bottom and are consumed by animals there. Because they’re practically invisible and gelatinous, they are very hard to study and little known despite being incredibly important and numerous, so far as anyone can tell. However, there are more krill than there are salps, so they aren’t the most common form of large plankton.

Salps, vertebrates and tunicates together form a larger group called the Olfactores, with cephalochordates excluded from this clade, and the sea squirts, also known as ascideans, may be the oldest type. This is a sea squirt:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA – By Nhobgood Nick Hobgood – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5682975

They vary a lot in appearance and are also filter-feeders with one known exception found in ocean trenches who is an ambush predator, and they have quite simple anatomy compared to vertebrates. They all, however, start off as tadpoles:

I believe the copyright on this has expired but will remove it on request.

This is a comparison of frog and ascidian tadpoles. I think I’ve seen one, but I’m probably wrong.

It’s surmised that the evolution of vertebrates began as follows. First of all, there were sea squirts whose tadpoles settled down onto rock at the bottom of the sea and lost their unnecessary organs. Later on, larvaceans developed from sea squirts, staying as tadpoles in a process known as neoteny, where adults retain juvenile characteristics. This process recurred many times, notably in humans, who are neotenous apes. These tadpoles then evolved into fish, but throughout the history of vertebrates the tadpole form continues to be an early form from which most of us develop. There are some exceptions.

There is a fairly recently discovered phylum of animals called the placozoa. They don’t seem to be closely related to any animals except perhaps sponges. This is one of them, Trichoplax adhærens:

By Bernd Schierwater – Eitel M, Osigus H-J, DeSalle R, Schierwater B (2013) Global Diversity of the Placozoa. PLoS ONE 8(4): e57131. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057131, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35712628

This photograph reminds me of a medical biopsy viewed under a microscope, and I will come back to that. They’re basically independently living patches of skin about a millimetre across, living on rocks. Here’s a cross-section of one:

By Maxinvestigator – Own work. This file was derived from: Placozoan anatomy.PNG, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47442865

Meanwhile, here’s a cross-sectional diagram of human skin:

There are obvious differences between the two, such as the presence of hairs, blood vessels, sensors and glands in human skin, but it does look rather similar I think. And placozoa are organless flat collections of cells growing on rocks. The underside eats detritus on the rock and the whole organism usually buds off offspring, although there is at least one sexual species. It’s difficult to place them among animals because they’re so simple and genes which might otherwise be shared with other animals have either never appeared or been lost, meaning that they may or may not be closely related to all sorts of other animals. The simplest hypothesis is that they’re close to sponges, who are also simple. But it’s possible that they’re degenerate descendants of some other phylum. Unsurprisingly, thin layers of soft cells growing on rocks in the sea tend not to fossilise. They remind me of lichen, although they’re much smaller.

It’s even possible, though there’s no particular reason why this might be true, that placozoa are descended from vertebrates. I have no detailed evidence for this, and I don’t actually believe it’s true, but given the little I know about them there’s no reason they wouldn’t be. There are, though, at least four known instances of organisms like this evolving from vertebrates. One of them is the canine venereal transmissible tumour. This is a form of cancer which is transmitted between dogs by genital sex and licking. It evolved from macrophages, which are large motile immune system cells, and deposits itself on the glans of dog penises and inside their nostrils. Coyotes also have it. A similar tumour exists among Tasmanian devils, transmitted by biting on their faces, and wiped out 95% of Tasmanian devils in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries CE. Syrian hamsters also can also have such a cancer, this time a sarcoma, contagious reticulum cell sarcoma, passed on by cannibalism, mosquitos and again biting. This one is different to the former two, which are all from the same cell line, i.e. related, because it has arisen spontaneously on more than one occasion and they are not all related to each other. All of these tumours are parasitic, separate organisms who have evolved from one or more individuals of the animals they infest. The appearance of cancer in an organism is an example of evolution, although usually one which leads to a dead end. Individual cells develop the ability to spread through the body, ignore the signal to self-destruct and develop more efficient ways to metabolise anærobically. This is, incidentally, a refutation of the complementary medicine idea that lætrile, a cyanide-generating compound found in rosaceæ such as almonds and cherry pips, can counteract cancer by starving tumours of oxygen. This would actually do the opposite because cancer cells do much better than non-cancer cells on the whole in such an environment, so anything which the body is doing to act against the cancer will be placed at a disadvantage relative to tumours in the first place as well as promoting the growth of the cells themselves. It’s a catastrophic approach. If, however, the tumour has a way of getting out of the host before the host dies and find a hospitable environment, it could thrive and spread between individuals even if it’s terminal. This makes it a separate, though parasitic organism, in each case derived from a chordate. In other words, these organisms are members of the chordata which lack all of the usual diagnostic criteria.

The fourth example is human, and not parasitic. These are the cell lines originating from Henrietta Lacks, who had serious cervical cancer on 4th October 1951 at the age of thirty-one, when she was officially declared dead. There are complex social and political issues relating to this cell line which have been extensively discussed elsewhere and which I think I’ve been into on this blog. It’s been suggested that Henrietta Lacks cancer cells constitute a new species. They differ from the other examples in being non-parasitic. They survive in labs and tend to replace the cells of other cell lines, to the extent that some other cell lines used in experiments and other procedures have ended up being replaced by her cells. Bear in mind that I’m practically ignoring the major concerns about this situation relating particularly to the rights of the woman herself and her family, and the important social issues raised by it, which are partly covered in Rebecca Skloot’s excellent book. Even so, the main point here is that there is a cell line which evolved from a human and now has a somewhat independent life in labs all over the planet.

Then there are organoids, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned previously. These are simple arrangements of cells which form structures like human organs, which can be artificially cultivated from tissue samples in the laboratory, but are also thought to arise spontaneously from human cells shed into sewage. Sewage is discharged into the sea, which is problematic because of its phosphorus content among other things

Now put all these facts together. There are:

  • animals who consist of thin layers of epithelial cells eating detritus on marine rocks.
  • tumours which evolved from mammals and can be transmitted between hosts.
  • cell lines derived from humans which reproduce and thrive in laboratories.
  • cell lines which develop into microscopic organoids from human cells in sewage which is discharged into the sea.

I think that, given these four facts taken together, there could one day be:

  • animals descended from humans consisting of agglomerations of epithelial cells living in warm shallow seas.

These animals would be, if anything, less complex than even sponges, but they’d have a number of advantages over humans as we are now which promote their survival and reproduction. As we’re currently constituted, we have to invest a lot of time and energy into parenting and education, insofar as those two are separate. We need a lot of energy to thrive becuse we generate our body het internally and have to keep an energy-hungry brain operating. We take ages to reach adulthood. Once we are adult, we may or may not reproduce physically and it can be difficult to find a mate if that’s ur intention in the first place. Finally, we can invent and use technology in social systems which may in the long run cause our extinction.

Contrast this with a human who consists merely of, say, a thin layer of cells living on a rock in a tropical reef. It doesn’t need to mate to reproduce. Any learning it might undertake would be extremely limited. It doesn’t have a brain or complex body systems susceptible to disease. It doesn’t need to generate its own body heat. And also, it doesn’t invent technology which will wipe itself out. This version of human is possibly more likely to survive than we are. Evolution makes us care about all sorts of things, like love, wealth, comfort, nurturing and poetry, but there’s nothing stopping that same evolution from pushing us in a completely different direction.

Here, then, is one possible future for the human race. A tumour evolves, perhaps caused by a viral pandemic, deliberate design or chemical pollution, which spreads between us and maybe makes us sterile, or sheds into the sewers and is sent out to sea. In the meantime, the complexity of our global society becomes impossible to maintain due to wars blocking the supply of the right metals to keep our infrastructure working or by a solar flare destroying the telecommunications network. We are now deskilled because we look up to do everything on the internet. We can’t plant new crops because the GPS system locates the automated planting machines, and there isn’t enough time to grow alternative crops to feed our huge population. So we starve, freeze, die of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant pathogens after we injure ourselves accidentally and so forth, and after a few years, since we’re sterile anyway, there are no humans left. Except there are. The occasional tumour cell has the genes necessary to survive in places like tropical coral reefs, or rather where they used to be because we’ve destroyed them all by now, which are warm and saline like the inside of a human body. And they flourish and multiply, and don’t destroy the planet or anything else that gets in the way. At this point I was going to insert a Monty Python sketch but I can’t find it. There wouldn’t be any tadpoles involved, large or small, as in microscopic.

And here we are.

Photo by Nadezhda Moryak on Pexels.com

Not really a scientific illustration, but we all know roughly what they look like don’t we?

I want to ask a few questions about these. Is the shape just coincidentally similar to that of tadpoles or is it connected to their function? Are there other types of sperm which don’t look that way? Are any genes related to the form of spermatozoa which also govern the form of tadpoles?

Right now, I can answer one of these questions quite easily. Yes, there are other types of sperm. For instance, Gingko biloba sperm has lots of beating cilia which propel it through the medium. Liverwort sperm don’t really have heads and do have several long tails. Some jellyfish sperm have harpoons which they use to attach themselves to female gonads, but then this is a common arrangement in cnidarian cells more generally. And famously, some fruitflies have sperm with tails more than twenty times the length of their bodies which they don’t use to swim with. Nonetheless, it’s still true that many species of animal do have sperm which look like tadpoles. There are various evolutionary pressures on sperm. For instance, the more competition there is between mates, the smaller the spermatozoa are because more of them can then be delivered at once. Sperm which fertilise after penetrative sex as opposed to external fertilisation have longer tails. Honey possum sperm are over a third of a millimetre long, human only sixty microns. They tend to have single tails because it’s more energetically expensive and time-consuming for them to develop several. Much morphological variation among sperm is mysterious, meaning that the reason they’re the shape they are in humans is also likely to be unknown.

That said, certain conclusions can be drawn as to the genetics of human sperm. When human sperm forms, a bridge is maintained between female and male cells. This is thought to be because X chromosomes are essential to survival, so even a haploid cell can’t survive for long without one. This means also that, paradoxically, the Y chromosome cannot be the site of genes responsible for the formation of sperm, but also that the process of swimming and fertilising an ovum cannot be governed by anything on the X chromosome while the male sperm is en route. Ova are also now thought to be active in the selection of sperm. It isn’t the case that one sperm makes an effort to reach and penetrate the passive ovum. Rather, the ovum “decides” to let a particular sperm in. Incidentally, both sperm and ova can be made from bone marrow. Flagella can be absent, bent, too wide or too narrow. Human sperm morphology is governed by a number of genes including DNAH1, CFAP43, CFAP44, CFAP69, FSIP2, WDR66 (CFAP251) and AK7. DNAH1 props up the inside of flagella. CFAP43 stands for “Cilia and Flagella-Associated Protein 43”, and unsurprisingly all four of the genes mentioned with similar names are also to do with that. Alleles of CFAP43, as well as causing infertility, can also cause hydrocephalus, which is not surprising because of the role cilia in the ventricles of the brain have in maintaining good flow of cerebrospinal fluid. CFAP44 forms the central strand of the flagellum. CFAP69 is also related to the sense of smell, which raises another issue: sperm need to be able to find their target, whch they presumably do by a chemical sense like taste or smell. However, this is not what this gene seems to do and it’s more to do with forming the special bipolar neurons in the nose, which are unusual in being able to send signals in both directions rather than just one. FSIP2 is Fibrous Sheath Interacting Protein-2. This gene only works after meiosis, that is, after the chromosome number has been halved. The fibrous sheath is a structure found only in marsupial and placental mammals, although this raises the question of whether multituberculates had it. Presumably we will never know. This is a pair of columns surrounding the outer dense fibres and linked by ribs running around the main piece of the sperm. CFAP251 is a versatile gene, determining for example the size of blood platelets and seems to be involved in the assembly of the central strand in flagella. Finally, AK7 is adenylate kinase 7, an enzyme which catalyses the reversible phosphorylation of adenine, so here the issue of phosphorus arises again – I’ll get round to talking about this soon. Hence that’s to do more with the motor keeping the sperm moving rather than its structure.

As to applying this to actual tadpoles, most of these genes have nothing to do with either the form of function of a tadpole’s tail, which is of course controlled by muscles and nerves, or rather, they may do but only because lots of genes are involved in lots of things. For instance, some of these genes are also involved in the nervous system, so it’s possible that sensory feedback for reflex movement of the tail would be linked to one of them, and it’s conceivable, although not actually true so far as I know, that the plates in skeletal muscle which are “walked” back and forth in muscular contraction and relaxation, would have genes in common with flagella formation, and that AK7 is involved in providing energy for that function, but on the whole these are tenuous, highly speculative and most improbable connections which, if they exist, don’t actually mean very much as they could equally be found, for example, in something like the movement and formation of hedgehog spines or whatever. There’s another issue on top of this to do with biophysics. Fluid mechanics are very different for tadpoles and sperm. The largest frog tadpoles are twenty-five centimetres long, although they are pathological. The smallest vertebrate of all is the 7.7 millimetre long Paedophryne amauensis, whose tadpoles are presumably a lot smaller than even that, although they don’t hatch out as tadpoles but as small adults, whereas the largest sperm is a third of a millimetre long. The crucial thing about this is that Paedophryne amauensis tadpoles wouldn’t actually need to swim at all, and therefore needn’t deal with the complication of doing so at that size. On a small scale, water-based fluids behave very differently than we would expect if we swam in them, and specifically they are extremely viscous, more like concrete than water, and objects within them will almost immediately grind to a halt as soon as force is no longer being exerted. In other words, physics is Aristotelian at this level. Hence a sperm is constantly “drilling” through seminal fluid and must constantly engage in oxidative phosphorylation at a high level, as can be seen by the fact that it’s packed with mitochondria. Hence the effort made by a sperm is even more impressive than it seems at first.

At this point I could put a clip from Woody Allen, you might know the one, but it’s rather unreconstructed since it’s from 1972, and it’s by Woody Allen, so I won’t.

Racism And Astronomy

I am of course incredibly White, so the immediate question here is why a White non-astronomer is qualified to talk about racism in astronomy. Well, strictly speaking of course I can’t really, or rather, I am unlikely to be able to wade into it in enough depth to swim knowledgeably. Nonetheless I can give a kind of overview of it and comment on some of the active racism involved.

Photo by Faik Akmd on Pexels.com

This is a time lapse picture of the night sky. The main reason we can know it was taken here on Earth, apart from the fact that astronomical pictures taken from other celestial bodies are rare and poor quality (in fact I only know of one body they have been taken from, and that’s Mars) is the colour of the sky and the presence of liquid and solid on the surface at the bottom of the picture. It also seems to have been taken from the northern hemisphere because of the relatively stable and bright streak at the centre, which is presumably Polaris. Had it been taken from the south, the much dimmer Sigma Octantis would be at the centre of the swirl.

The sky seems non-specific and impassive to us, and also very little influenced by conflict or politics going on here on Earth among humans, and that is one reason I’m so keen on astronomy. Contemplating the Universe makes the problems we have here seem less important and seems to put them in perspective. I would personally say the stars are something to aspire to. I so want there to be humans out there among them one day. Of course, we are already among the stars but apparently only one of them hosts us. Nevertheless, there are cultural dominances and biasses in how we view the Universe and also very clear and overt racism exists among the astronomical community.

This sounds like an accusation, as the words “racism”, “sexism”, “ableism” and others often do, but that would imply that people are consciously and deliberately reserving much of the academic world to White people. That may happen as well, but it’s more important to look at the issue as a structural thing. As a White person, I have the privilege of firstly being unaware of racial bias among astronomers and secondly of being able to contemplate astronomy in a meaningful way. There are other ways in which I am trivially disadvantaged to do with my situation. For instance, I can’t see objects in the night sky very easily because of my poor eyesight, so the best I can usually manage to do is to view maybe first magnitude stars such as Antares, and basically nothing else. This is more on the disability side than ethnicity of course, but there is another set of issues which is fairly obvious to me regarding gender, namely that a man may feel much more confident to go out at night to a park or remote area to look at the sky in a place without light pollution than a woman might, and beyond that the kind of systemic biasses which prefer able-bodied middle-aged WASP men work against women, the disabled and ethnic minorities. Hence in the richer parts of the world, Black people are likely to live in places with more light pollution and less likely to be able to afford a good telescope. Ironically, much of Afrika, for example, would be very suitable indeed for telescopic astronomy. Here’s a map of the continent showing lighting at night:

(would’ve been better without the labels). And here’s Europe:

This means that treating every location as equally likely, which is not so because of lack of population, one stands a much better chance of seeing the night sky well in Afrika than in Europe. Also, along the Equator one can see both celestial hemispheres, so one can see more of it in Afrika than Europe.

There will inevitably be systemic racism in who becomes an astronomer in Europe and North America, although I’m guessing this isn’t any worse than who becomes a palaeontologist. The latter presents a rather different problem as there are issues regarding the plunder of resources by colonialists and the treatment of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in the field, which may not be so big a problem with astronomy. However, there can be problems with the siting of observatories in a similar sense, the most well-known one at the moment being the positioning of the Thirty Metre Array in Hawai’i, which was to be situated on Mauna Kea, a sacred site to the people of that archipelago. The issue here is that the planned observatory is one of several near that site, and in the past the excavation of the site has desecrated the graves of ancient high chiefs. In the past, promises regarding the building of telescopes have been broken, with insistence that this would be the last development, followed by more of the same. The northern hemisphere is low in such observatories, and a possible alternate site in La Palma in the Canary Islands is less suitable for infrared astronomy due to the warmer climate and lower elevation. Mauna Kea is the highest mountain on Earth measured from its base, so there’s less atmosphere to look through. There is a peaceful protest ongoing there. Some of the indigenous people view the idea of looking for other habitable planets as encouraging an attitude that Earth is disposable. Despite losing their case in the courts, the actions taken to build the observatory seem to meet the legal definition of desecration. Elders in their seventies and eighties have been arrested for peaceful protests, and because the site is sacred all protestors are committed to non-violence. This has also divided the community as the police officers are sometimes related to the protestors. Beyond that is the issue of how the United States government acquired the islands in the first place, on the grounds that the White businessmen were more fit to run the island than the recently independent natives. The federal government also had no legal jurisdiction over the country.

This story makes me wonder about whether there are other observatories with similar histories. There is also a separate issue regarding the Arecibo Telescope, which is an enormous radio telescope built in a basin in Puerto Rico. This was used to send the first message into interstellar space for detection by aliens, although it was only a semi-serious attempt for publicity purposes. In 2020 CE, the telescope collapsed, primarily due to lack of funding making maintenance unaffordable. Like Hawai’i, part of the rhetoric for siting the telescope there is that it brings money into the local economy, but that money is no longer forthcoming. Elsewhere on the planet, the Karoo Square Kilometre Array in South Africa requires a 13 000 hectare “quiet zone” which minimises electromagnetic transmissions to enable the telescopes to detect signals from the sky more easily. The San used to live in this region and were forced to move north by the colonial government in the century before last, and there’s the issue of purchase of the land from White farmers to prevent radio interference. Employment is low and deprivation high in the area, and it’s possible that building the extra telescopes may lead to jobs. The San were, however, displaced when the government brought Black farmers to the area some time ago. The SKA is situated where it is thanks to a government bidding process which brought it into the area.

Then there’s the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. This was afflicted in 2013 by a workers’ contract dispute between the Washington CD-based organisation which runs the facility and the four-fifths of employees at the site who are Chilean. All of these things taken together look like a process where scientific institutions in the wealthy and light-polluted (and also electromagnetic radiation more generally) North of the planet uses places with colonial histories to site its astronomical facilities, without much respect being paid to the people who actually live there. As I say, I don’t know much about these things but it seems to be a clear example of racism in astronomy. The Polynesian people and the San do of course also have their own astronomical traditions. Western astronomers were not the first.

In 2017, only nine percent of US STEM academics were POC. The Black population of the US is 13.6%. As for Black women, only sixty-six of them got doctorates in physics compared to 27 000 White men. This is not about problematising STEM departments or the scientific community in particular, but in a racist society this kind of disparity can be expected if nothing is done to address it. In general, diversity is an asset because new perspectives can be brought to bear on research, so this is not simply about justice for ethnic minorities but about having a well-functioning scientific discipline. Problems encountered in physics and astronomy for POC include microaggressions from White students, not feeling welcomed or included, imposter syndrome, a lack of role models, financial struggles and an absence of academic support. There is a second problem with examining racism specifically in astronomy caused by the tendency for physics and astronomy to be lumped together, perhaps because physics is perceived as a more “useful” subject, and it may also be that astronomers are less aware of the need to combat racism in their discipline than physicists. Researchers into the issue have not managed to visit astronomy departments as easily as physics ones, meaning that no firm conclusions can be drawn about the relative differences.

The White Florida emeritus astronomy professor Haywood Smith has state

d that he does not believe systemic racism exists at a time when only two percent of American astronomers are Black. His own department had had one Black employee, in admin, hired in the early 1990s. On the positive side, Black students report that the environment in the department is generally very positive and supportive. However, I can’t help but be reminded of Patrick Moore, who was chair of the right wing United Country Party, which opposed immigration. He was also an admirer of Enoch Powell, condemned the Race Relations Act and regarded the absolute monarchy of Liechtenstein as the “best political system in the world”. This last point is more complex, mainly because Liechtenstein is a microstate, but it still means that, like Britain, Liechtenstein’s head of state is very likely always to be White.

It would be unfair to use both of these astronomers as typical of their profession. Even so, it does remind me of the interesting phenomenon of right wing animal liberationists. There are people whom I might describe as “animal lovers” who look at the world very differently than I do, and whose veganism, if that’s an accurate description, is also very different to mine. For instance, there are some animal liberationists who are anti-abortion and see that as consistent, and there’s also an attitude that whereas humans are terrible, and behave terribly towards each other, other species do not perpetrate deliberate cruelty but simply try to survive and thrive, and take care of their offspring. For such people, other species seem to constitute a similar escape from the woeful interaction of human beings with each other as astronomy does for me. Maybe actively racist White astronomers are similar. I don’t feel I’ve exactly captured the issue, but I can see the sense in this apparently incongruous juxtaposition.

The way it might work for White astronomers is that they want to rise above this morass of apparent nonsense that infests the world, but their nonsense is not the same as my nonsense. Mine is the endless grind of global capitalism, greed and hatred between groups to ensure divided opposition to oppression. Theirs is a reflection of the privilege which enabled them to become astronomers in the first place. It could also be a kind of innocence. They may be so focussed on the stars that they’re oblivious of what’s happening on the ground. But it’s been said that not taking a position in a dispute about oppression is taking the side of the oppressor. Some might also say that there’s an issue with even having astronomy departments “when the world’s in such a mess”. I completely disagree with this though, because awareness of the existence of the rest of the cosmos has a function similar to spirituality and art in allowing one to continue and cope in order to continue fighting for a better world. Being a science, astronomy also has the usual function of science in training people in critical thinking. This is how astronomy graduates will be coming out the other end of the degree machine, whether or not they use their qualification vocationally. Astronomy is also just plain useful, for instance in detecting asteroids hurtling towards the planet and wiping out all life as we know it.

Another aspect of astronomy and racism is the question of sky cultures and names for objects. I’ve already mentioned the Square Kilometre Array and the observatories on Mauna Kea. Both of these are unsurprisingly both associated with indigenous communities, namely the San and Polynesians respectively. A sky culture is how a particular culture sees the sky. There are several Polynesian sky cultures just as there are many Polyesian languages. It could be expected that a set of people who have settled in various places across the Pacific and Indian Oceans would have a highly disparate set of cultures. The Austronesian language family had the largest geographical range of any language family before colonialism: Hawai’i and Madagascar both speak Austronesian languages and are 17 000 kilometres apart. Their broad distribution is a factor in their astronomy, as it was important to have some understanding of constellations in order to navigate. In order to record the positions of the stars, some Polynesians used “stick charts”, made from palm fronds, cowries and plant cordage:

By Sterilgutassistentin – This file has been extracted from another file, GPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51775534

Curved links indicate ocean currents and winds and the charts are effectively maps of the ocean. Pacific Islands tend to be around one to three hundred kilometres apart with the exception of such outliers as Hawai’i. The information was memorised and navigators were also spiritual and political leaders, navigation being a spiritual and religious act. Astronomy was part of this. Guiding stars were used when low in the sky, with imaginary vertical lines projected onto the horizon to indicate direction, but these move as the night goes on due to the rotation of the planet. The direction indicated by the star is maintained until another star rises. The paths between these stars are referred to as “kavenga” – “star paths” – named after the brightest star and all stars are referred to by the name of the brightest. However, these are not applicable all year round, so the year is divided into four unequal seasons with different kavenga. These are Ke Ka O Makali’i (the northern winter – Hawai’i has no seasons of course), Ka Iwikuamo’o (northern spring), Manaiakalani (northern summer) and the overlapping Ka Lupu O Kawelo (northern autumn into winter, including some of Ke Ka O Makali’i). Kavenga could also be kept on one side or other of the boat, or the boat could be aimed between two kavenga. There is also the star compass, which uses the presence of Polaris and Crux Australis, as we in the West call them, and the stars around them as they rise and set, to locate the north and south celestial poles. They also picked out a number of other asterisms (star patterns), including what we call Orion’s Belt, Scorpio, and the Pleiades, and used their rising and setting to mark another six points on the horizon and construct the directions in which other stars were since their positions would then be known. This enables the navigator to find out where the boat is when the sky is partly cloudy. There are also, unsurprisingly, stories associated with the star paths and asterisms. Apart from being meaningful in other ways, these serve as mnemonics for the location of the star paths.

There isn’t time to cover all Polynesian sky cultures here, so I will now move on to the San. Although it must be remembered that the biological construction of ethnicity as race is distinctly dubious, politically speaking, it’s also worth noting the identity of the San, whose genetic profiles are highly unusual. The San appear to be the group genetically closest to the earliest examples of Homo sapiens. Both their Y-chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA branched off early from the rest of the species and they seem to have diverged from about two hundred millennia in the past. They’re also the most diverse group of humans genetically. Two San can be as different generically from each other as two randomly chosen people from anywhere on Earth. Besides this, albinos are unusually common among them. I mention all this to indicate that they are very much not simply Black people even though Europeans might lump all Afrikans who are not fair-skinned together. They have a very distinct identity. Afrikans generally are more genetically diverse than the rest of the human race, so as I’ve said previously, if you want a construction of race based on genetics, and I don’t really know why you would, it makes sense to see Afrika as including about ten ethnicities and the rest of the world about fourteen, but with entire continents in some cases only having a couple, so the human race basically consists of a series of genetic groups which often vary in skin tone and other features within those groups plus a large number of mainly dark-skinned groups all of whom originate recently from Afrika. The idea of skin tone as a major feature distinguishing ethnicities makes no genetic sense, and of course people don’t just “breed” within their own hermetically sealed racial units.

One tantalising possibility exists regarding San sky lore, which is that it may be directly descended from early human mythology. On the other hand, behavioural modernity seems to have appeared after the split between them and the rest of the species, so maybe not. One difficulty with recovering it is that Christian missionaries have obscured and suppressed the content, but one story is that a woman was baking a root vegetable on a fire and wouldn’t let her daughter eat it, so the daughter kicked at the fire and scattered the ashes across the night sky, forming the Milky Way, and the red embers formed the red stars in the sky. Kham (the Moon, Cynthia) is a man who has angered the Sun, gains weight each month and then is cut away by the Sun until only the backbone is left, and he pleads that this crescent he has become be left for his children, who then repeat the cycle. The Sun, in a possibly different tribal tradition, becomes a rhino at sunset, is eaten by a different tribe who then throw her scapula over to the east, where it becomes a new animal and rises again. The celestial bodies are the elder race and all personified. The Sun, and again this seems to be a different tradition, is a man with luminous armpits, armpits being considered a source of sweat which contains supernatural power, who refused to share his light to dry out the termites for eating, so the first San threw him into the sky so that his armpits could illuminate the world. The “Moon”, is the shoe of a male trickster deity, /kaggen, the name literally meaning “mantis”, who threw it into the sky, and an alternate theory is that it’s an ostrich feather also throw into the sky by /kaggen, who commanded it to become that celestial body. All of /kaggen his possessions are magically intelligent and the “Moon” alone speaks using a retroflex click. Like many other cultures, there is an association between a lagomorph, this time a hare, and this luminary. The spirits of the dead are carried by the dark side, so the full phase is considered good luck for hunting, as is a blood moon. The stars are named after various animals such as lions, antelopes and tortoises, and a stone used for digging. For them, the sky was a stone dome with holes in it through which the Sun shone. The three stars of Orion’s belt are zebras, the Pleiades the daughters of the deity of the dawn and sky, Tsui. Her unnamed husband is Aldebaran. Betelgeuse is a lion who is also stalking the zebras, so Aldebaran can’t get them without getting killed, so he’s slowly starving to death.

There’s quite a contrast, then, between the sky cultures of the Polynesians and those of the San, and of course there are plenty of others, but the dominant one, used by Western astronomers, is of course the Greco-Roman and more widely European eighty-eight classical constellations with stars named using Greek letters, numbers and often Arabic names. The presence of Arabic in this system demonstrates how the Arab world didn’t go into the Dark Ages like Christendom and for a long time their astronomy was more advanced than ours. There is a clear division in the names of the constellations between north and south because of what was visible from the Med at the time, so the zodiacal and the more prominent northern constellations were given names by the Greeks and Romans, but there are also fainter northern constellations with newer names and the southern names, also given by Westerners, tend to be very different. Some are neutral and uncontroversial, such as Crux Australis and Triangulum Australe, and the southern polar constellation is called Octans due to its obvious association with navigation. Several others have nautical or navigational names, such as Sextans, Quadrans (which is obsolete), Pyxis (the Compass), and some more are named after birds such as Tucana and Apus. The rather dim Indus was named by a Dutch astronomer and is clearly supposed to represent an individual of non-European origin, but their exact ethnicity is unclear due to the practice of referring to native Americans as “Indians”. There are also some obsolete constellations, one of which, Quandrans, has already been mentioned. Unfortunately one of these is Antinous, the homosexual lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. There was also a pangolin, and some others whose names seem perfectly normal and acceptable, such as the Cat, the Bee and the Sundial. Others used to be nationalistic or partisan, such as Sobieskii’s Shield, now known simply as the Shield, and Charles’s Oak. Also, in the seventeenth century, an attempt was made by one astronomer to give all the constellations Christian designations, replacing the northern constellations with New Testament names, the southern with Old Testament ones and the zodiac with the twelve apostles. This is a diffeent kind of cultural bias.

I’m sure there’s plenty more to be said about racism and astronomy, but I want to finish by mentioning the recent renaming of certain celestial objects such as NGC 2392, formerly known as “The Eskimo Nebula”. The name “Esquimau” is considered racist because it isn’t what the Inuit call themselves and it was widely believed to mean “eater of raw flesh”. In fact, it may not do but instead may be derived from “Ayeshkimu”, meaning “netters of snow shoes”. However, whatever its origin it’s considered as a colonial term with a racist origin by the Inuit, so the colloquial name has now been replaced by the New General Catalogue number. Similarly NGC 4567 and 4568, twin galaxies, were formerly referred to as the “Siamese Twin Galaxies”, which has again now been dropped. NASA also has an Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity which addresses issues affecting marginalised groups.

As I said at the start of this post, I am not really the right person to be talking about racism in astronomy as I am White and not an astronomer, but I hope I’ve been able to provide some kind of sketchy survey of some of the issues involved. There’s bound to be a lot more.

Why Whales Are Fish After All

I’m not entirely satisfied with the title of this post but I’ve been fishing around for a better one which isn’t forthcoming. This isn’t actually about whales at all, or not primarily so.

I should point out first of all that I do happen to be brewing an appropriately big whale thing, but this here is not that thing. Rather, this has been stirred up by an observation someone made that penguins are not fish. Well, in a way they are.

There are a number of “scientific facts” which are often trotted out which could be argued with given contemporary scientific practice, and they’re along the lines of Pluto not being, or being, a planet. Here are several examples:

  • Whales, dolphins and porpoises are not fish but mammals.
  • Humans are apes
  • Apes are not monkeys
  • Birds are dinosaurs.

The last thing is not like the others. Before I go onto that, though, I want to mention something else which is slightly similar. Behind my head, I have a zoology textbook published in I think Victorian times. It’s an appealingly brown cloth-bound tome with illustrations in mezzotint. In days of yore, though perhaps not yore enough, I used it to write two ten thousand word essays in A-level biology about arthropods and chordates, the problem being that actually a lot had changed in the world of zoology in the previous eight decades. Incidentally, the reason I ended up writing such long essays is that one of the other students had insisted that the biology teacher never gave more than seven out of ten because he never had a mark higher than that, and I wanted to prove him wrong. I succeeded. Funny what motivates you, eh? I was also motivated by his homophobia, which I felt made him a nasty person. Anyway, in this two-volume work animals are classified quite differently to how they are today. For instance, arrow worms, now considered to be deuterostomes and therefore quite closely related to vertebrates, were thought to be a form of nematode. Another conflation is between what are now called entoprocts and ectoprocts. These are sessile animals who live in colonies and are superficially like sea anemones or coral. They turn out not to be related to each other at all closely but were once placed in the same phylum. Entoprocts look like wine glasses, and yes they’re transparent like them, with tentacles around the rims. They’re related to arthropods such as insects. Ectoprocts sometimes look quite similar although they vary more and there are more species. They usually live in colonies and are related to brachiopods, the uncannily bivalve-like animals which are in no wise molluscs. The “-proct” bit in their name is the same as the “proct-” bit in “proctologist” – it refers to the anus. Entoprocts have their ani inside the circle of tentacles, ectoprocts outside. They’re really quite similar to each other but are in fact no more closely related to each other than they are to humans. The former phylum, “polyzoa”, included both but it was later realised that they had nothing to do with each other. The ectoprocta, also known as the bryozoa, is the largest minor phylum. Animals have about seven major body plans organised into phyla, and about four or five dozen minor body plans. Some of these are only found in a couple of species, and there’s a big gap between the diversity of the minor and major phyla, but ectoprocts are the largest phylum that isn’t enormous. It’s like Leeds – the largest British city which isn’t enormous.

All that said, entoprocts and ectoprocts have similar lifestyles and it’s fair to group them together. But small flower-like animals living underwater could be hard to relate to. Humans like things with backbones, or at least most of what we seem to be able to relate to has a face and a bony internal skeleton. Some people tend not to dignify most of the animal kingdom with that monicker. Ironically, most organisms called “animal” are actually just mammals apart from one species, and this is where cladistics become manifest, because in fact although everything conventionally called an animal is one, but so are lots of other species. When the book in question was published, there was an order of mammals called the edentates – mammals without teeth. In fact this is in any case a misnomer since in fact one family under this heading, the armadillos, have more teeth than any other mammal. Sloths and anteaters were also considered edentates. In the past, pangolins and aardvarks were too, even though they lived in the Old World and other edentates lived in the New. All that said, it’s undeniable that they’re similar.

Giant anteater

I’ve already said that I wonder if people know more about aardvarks than other animals because they come early in the dictionary or encyclopaedia and therefore fatigue has yet to set in. But anyway, look at this set of four animals. Do they not seem to be closely related? The first two are armoured and able to roll up to protect themselves. The other two have degenerate teeth and dig into insect colonies to eat them with powerful claws. Nonetheless only the first and third are closely related, In fact these animals along with sloths form a sister group to all other placental mammals. Pangolins are most closely related to carnivores and aardvarks to the likes of elephants. Cladistics completely sunders this group.

All that said, there is a “type” which includes only distantly related mammals such as numbats, echidnas, tamanduas and aardvarks as related in terms of being similar in form, and another “type” comprising pangolins and armadillos, though more loosely. I’ll come back to this because cladistics are what leads to peculiar, “common sense”-type results in some situations, one of which has already been noted.

A clade is defined as a group of genetically related organisms. Clades can occur within species. For instance, my mother line forms a clade which is most common among Libyan Tuaregs and my father’s line among people in the Gaeltacht. Like other individual organisms of sexually reproducing kinds, I am in several clades. Like all living humans, I’m also in other clades. I’m in Y-chromosomal Adam’s clade and in mitochondrial Eve’s, whereof the aforementioned Gaels and Tuaregs also are respectively. However, clades are more often used to group entire species. A clade is a group comprising all evolutionary descendants of a common ancestor, usually understood to refer to an entire community rather than an individual or pair, although it could.

This is why, first of all, birds are dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are defined cladistically as something like “the most recent common ancestor of the house sparrow and Triceratops and all of its descendants.” I find this definition slightly confusing because it used to be taught that there were two taxa of dinosaurs, the saurischia and ornithischia which were not particularly close to each other. The taxon “Dinosauria” had been retired. The sauropods are also included by mentioning Diplodocus in that definition. The fact that ornithischia means “bird-hipped” and saurischia “lizard-hipped” is also odd because it means birds are lizard-hipped rather than bird-hipped even though their hips are obviously those of birds. In terms of the actual form of their bodies, as opposed to their DNA, dinosaurs are archosaurs whose hind limbs are vertical and stay under their bodies when they walk. This is not true of other archosaurs such as crocodiles. The really big change in the perception of dinosaurs was probably when it was realised that many of them had feathers, although not all of them, and the presence of hair-like skin appendages might even be a primitive feature as pterodactyls, strictly “pterosaurs”, who are not dinosaurs but are related, , have a hairy covering. This means that not only were many non-avian dinosaurs feathered but that they often looked a lot more like birds than their classic depictions do.

Then there’s the rather startling whale situation. If I remember right, at some point, possibly in the 1980s, whales were thought to have evolved separately from two different lines of terrestrial mammals, one for the baleen whales such as the Blue and the other for the toothed ones such as the Sperm. This is no longer accepted, and in fact I might have remembered it wrongly. Whales are now considered artiodactyls. That is, they’re in the same order as giraffes and gazelles. Even-toed ungulates, i.e. animals with an even number of hoofs on each foot. This is an old-fashioned definition as obviously whales don’t have hoofs at all (“hooves”?). In fact one way of spotting the resemblance is to look at the ankle bones of primitive whales and terrestrial even-toed ungulates, which have a distinctive double-pulley form into which the tendons fit, found in no other mammals. Another way of looking at it is to consider the hippo:

It’s been recognised for ages that hippos are ungulates, but it was also thought that they were most closely related to pigs. In fact it turns out that pigs are not that close to them but are fairly clearly related to peccaries. Hippos are descended from much less bulky animals, basically lightweight hippos which were already amphibious but not heavily built, and although they spend a lot of time in the water they entered it separately from their relatives the whales, and the adaptations they have evolved independently. Another big difference between the ancestors of whales and hippos is that the former were predators. Whales were originally like mammalian crocodiles, waiting for prey in shallow water, possibly to ambush them, and with long jaws filled with teeth, but of course mammalian. Although they aren’t that basal, river dolphins, who have evolved separately more than once, give a good impression of what whales previously looked like:

It does seem very far from obvious that giraffes and dolphins are in the same order though, and this is one consequence of cladistics. There is, however, another consequence which falls into the category of accidental correctness. It used to be trotted out regularly that whales and dolphins are not fish but mammals, because they have no scales, are “warm-blooded”, give birth to live young whom they suckle, and breathe air There is a bit of an issue with several of these points, because there are fish with no scales such as catfish, “warm-blooded” fish such as opahs and tuna, fish who give birth to live young such as swordtails and guppies, and fish with lungs who breathe air, and in fact in the last case the condition of having lungs is found in very early, fully aquatic fish such as the Devonian arthrodires. Also, although as far as I know there are no fish who secrete milk, sharks do provide food for their offspring from their bodies when they eat the eggs of other embryonic sharks within their mothers. Technically there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a “warm-blooded”, air breathing, scaleless fish who gives birth to live young, and when I say “fish”, I do mean the things that are closely related to salmon and cod, and not some exotic definition.

However, cladistically whales are fish because mammals are fish. The first fish to develop limbs with digits who was ancestral to all land vertebrates and also all vertebrates descended from land vertebrates such as ichthyosaurs, penguins and seals, was a fish. We are descended from fish and to fish some of us have returned, in terms of gross physical appearance, and cladistically, everything descended from a fish is also a fish, just as everything descended from a dinosaur is also a dinosaur, even if she’s a humming bird. Therefore, whales are fish. This is a bit annoying for pedants because they can’t now go “um, actually. . . ” in a stereotypically nasal voice about it any more. Nevertheless it is so. They’ve taken away our toy. But whales are fish in the same sense that kangaroos are.

There’s another, similar consequence to this though, or rather a couple of related ones. It’s best to start at the end here. Humans are apes. This is actually true in a couple of ways. Humans are descended from apes, so in a cladistic sense we are apes. In more detail, we really, really are apes. Considering the great apes, which consist of two species of orang utan, two species of gorilla, humans, bonobos and chimpanzees, the three species mentioned last are closely related to each other and more distantly related to the gorillas, but the real outliers are actually the two species of orang utan, not the humans. This shouldn’t be that surprising considering that orang utan are east Asian whereas the rest of the surviving great apes, including humans, are Afrikan in origin. In that sense, then, we are apes. We’re actually basically the “third chimpanzee”, as Jared Diamond puts it. I find this a little difficult because I think we more closely resemble gorillas physically than we do chimps or bonobos, but this is probably just because we’re larger than the other two and therefore have a more similar build to gorillas for biophysical reasons. Another aspect of human biology which is a little surprising is that certain features of our bodies are more primitive than those of other apes, so in fact we aren’t just great apes but also in some ways quite primitive great apes compared to the other species. Specifically, gorillas, chimps and bonobos have hands adapted for knuckle-walking, whereas human hands are more like those of Miocene apes who hadn’t gone through that process yet.

We are also cladistically apes, in the sense that we are members of the clade including the species mentioned above and our common ancestor would very obviously have looked like an ape to us. This also means there’s no missing link between apes and humans, because the apes who evolved into humans are also the apes who evolved into other apes. The exact lineage of humans is hard to identify because there was a huge “thicket” of ape species in the Miocene, when apes were much more common and diverse than non-human ape species are today. It also usually turns out that when a fossil organism is found, it can’t be definitively said to be a direct ancestor of anything alive now. Humans actually tend to be an exception to this. For instance, Homo heidelbergensis seems to be straightforwardly the ancestral species to all living humans. It can also be difficult to find fossil apes because they’re less likely to die accidental deaths. A rhino might wander into a tar pit and suffocate, or a sabretooth tiger might see a pile of dead animals killed by poison gas from a lake and be poisoned herself, but an ape is more likely to notice the corpses, become suspicious and avoid the hazards. All that said, here’s an example of an ape who is close to our common ancestor:

This is Proconsul africanus, who lived from twenty-three to fourteen million years ago around Lake Victoria and on islands in that lake, eight million years before “Lucy” and dying out around the time orang utan diverged from the other apes, all of which had a common ancestor at this point. Gorillas diverged from other Afrikan apes a couple of million years later and then chimps and bonobos from humans six million years ago. Bonobos and chimpanzees then split less than a million years ago, by which time our own genus existed. Proconsul was more quadrupedal than today’s apes, and as can be seen from the image, the hands are more like ours than other apes’, this being a “primitive” feature.

There are things to be said about primates and their relatives, but before I can get to them it would probably help to look at another example of a mammalian order which, unlike primates, we don’t belong to. There’s no particular reason to select them except that a lot of their species are familiar to us, but the carnivores are worth looking at, as would rodents and a load of others, but why not? First of all, carnivores have a significant point in common with the artiodactyls in that they’re divided into terrestrial and aquatic forms, seals being carnivores too. They’ve been called fissipeds and pinnipeds, that is, carnivores with split feet, i.e. digits, and carnivores with feather-like feet, in other words flippers. Concentrating on the land-lubbers gets us two main divisions, into the feliforms and the caniforms, i.e. cat- and dog-like animals. Some animals are in unexpected places. For instance, hyaenas are considered cat-like and there used to be animals which were like a cross between dogs and bears, which diverged early from the other caniforms. There is a more obvious basal versus derived distinction among the feliforms than the caniforms. That is, the feliforms do still have more notably “primitive” types than the caniforms. These are the vivierrids, including the genet, whom Sarada and I once witnessed rummaging around in bins in France when we were sleeping rough. On the caniform side, there’s a group called the mustelids, which includes badgers but also animals like ferrets, minks and stoats, and it’s easy to see how they blend into otters and seals. As far as cats and dogs themselves are concerned, whereas there are people who prefer one or the other, it wouldn’t be sensible to see either as “more advanced” than the other. They’re simply different kinds of carnivore. There is a trend of specialisation within each group, which among the caniforms seems to peak in something like bears or walruses, but it still doesn’t seem like there could be a ladder of different species of carnivores with something at the top. We’re invested emotionally in carnivores because we bond with dogs or cats, or we see bears as charismatic or pandas as cute, but we can still be objective about them.

The way we think of primates tends not to be like that. The standard popular narrative seems to be dominated by a hierarchy, beginning with tupaias, which are not actually officially primates but are related along with rodents, lagomorphs (including rabbits and hares) and colugos. I’m going to permit myself a slight digression here: lagomorphs and rodents are distinguished and considered to be in different orders, but are also closely related, and if the division was placed a little higher than it currently is, they would be in the same taxon. So, there’s a superorder of mammals I tend to call the Euarchontoglires but is also known as the Superprimates, consisting of lagomorphs, rodents, colugos, primates and “tree shrews”. The rodents and lagomorphs are called Glires and belong together, and since it used to be thought that primates were closely related to bats, the “ladder” idea hasn’t been imposed on them and they aren’t seen as of a rank in that hierarchy. To get back to the point, the way it generally goes is that we see tupaias – tree shrews – as at the bottom, prosimians as a bit further up, tarsiers as further up still, then New World monkeys, Old World monkeys, lesser apes and great apes, in that order. That isn’t how things are. There is a sense in which tupaias are similar to ancestral primates who were around at about the time the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out, but beyond that the prosimians, though older than the simians, have been around ever since simians evolved as well. It’s just that one set of prosimians turned into tarsier-like forms and then into monkeys.

So: humans are apes, but despite the insistence to the contrary, apes really are monkeys. We are a special kind of monkey, but so are marmosets. Old World Monkeys form a clade, defined as catarrhines, and include apes. Although we think of monkeys as living in trees and having long tails, on the whole, exceptions being many such as macaques and baboons, and of course apes, we are Old World monkeys. For instance, New World monkeys tend to be smaller, have prehensile tails and are platyrrhine – their nostrils are on the sides of their noses. Humans are not like that. We’re bigger, tailless on the whole, and are catarrhine. Hence the similar insistence that apes and monkeys shouldn’t be confused is as unscientific in its own way as the idea that whales are not fish. Whales are fish, and apes are monkeys.

There is, though, a problem with this insistence, or rather there are two problems. The more obvious one is the overtly and actively racist use of apes and monkeys as terms to refer to Black humans. As a White person, it would be distinctly dodgy for me to go up to a Black person and call them a monkey or an ape, and equally the AI face recognition algorithms which identify Black human faces as gorillas are the product of racism. Therefore, there’s a separate problem with even using the words “monkey” and “ape”. The words “catarrhine”, and “simian” for the whole lot including New World monkeys, and the word “hominoid” for apes might be better. In fact, there’s even another problem with the English term “New World monkey”, because the New World is arguably only new for Europeans, although it’s also true that humans got there later, after evolving in the Old World.

Besides all this, though, there is a potential issue with the idea of cladistics being somehow more fundamental than the older form of biological taxonomy, which was invented before evolutionary theory. Obviously I’m not creationist, but I do feel that evolutionary theory has been allowed to dominate in a similar way to how orbital dynamics was allowed to dominate astronomy, leading to Pluto’s demotion. Yes, Pluto’s orbit is not like that of Jupiter’s or Venus’s, but it’s a big spherical lump of rock and ice thousands of kilometres in diameter. Likewise, a whale is a fish, but an odd fish because of having mammary glands, a four-chambered heart, blubber, no scales or lateral line, and so on. But there is another sense in which aquatic vertebrates with streamlined bodies, dorsal fins, feather-like limbs and tails with “foils” on them really are similar to each other, and this needs to be acknowledged because it has ecological and physical significance. Taking this to humans, genetically humans are closer to chimpanzees than gorillas, but because we are also closer in size to gorillas than chimps, we kind of form a group with gorillas which excludes the more closely related chimpanzees and bonobos. Likewise, pigs and hippos aren’t as closely related as hippos and whales, but pigs and hippos are similar in other ways.

In philosophy, there’s a concept of the “natural kind”. This is the idea that there are categories out there in the world which exist whether or not we realise it. It’s tempting to look at clades not only as natural kinds, but also as somehow more important than other biological natural kinds, based on genomes. This priority runs the risk of ignoring equally valid natural kinds in the form of ecological niches and physical similarity. It is actually important for whales and sharks to be streamlined in similar ways, and for echidnas, tamanduas, numbats and aardvarks all to be mammals who eat social insects as the main part of their diet. This sort of natural kind doesn’t seem any less valid to me than clades, and to be honest I think we should have a second taxonomical system which groups these together as well. Otherwise, imagine this. Humans discover a very Earth-like planet on which there are organisms who move around of their own accord on land and in the water, have hard internal skeletons and a segmented hard structure along their backs carrying nerves to the organs of the body. Some of them dig in the ground and have long noses which they used to eat small motile organisms who live in colonies. Some of them are fish-shaped and descended from land-living organisms of this kind. Some of them are bipedal, have large brains and are about 170 centimetres in height as adults. All of these organisms give birth to live young and suckle them with milk which they secrete themselves. However, life appeared on this planet from non-living processes as it may have done here, or alternatively was seeded, as may have happened here, from elsewhere. Hence there is no genetic link between these fish-like “warm-blooded” organisms and whales, between the long-nosed small colonial organism eaters and anteaters, or between the bipedal one with hands and big brains who make spaceships. None of these organisms are animals according to cladistics. Nor are they mammals, even though they tend to be furry, suckle their young and give birth to offspring without laying eggs. Is this a sensible way of carrying on?

There is more than one kind of natural kind which is equally valid and scientific and can be applied to the same field of knowledge, if natural kinds exist. And whales are fish after all, in two different senses.

Are Humans Embarrassing Or Boring?

This is not either/or, incidentally. We might theoretically be neither embarrassing nor boring or we might be both. Also, when I say “embarrassing”, I might be better off saying something like “shameful” or “social pariahs”. Please bear with me.

This is the famous “pale blue dot” photograph taken by one of the Voyager spacecraft on Valentine’s Day 1990, at which point it was beyond the orbit of Neptune. There is a minute fleck in this picture which I thought at first was a bit of dust on the screen. I tend to make similar mistakes whenever I see this image. Nonetheless, the “ray” on the right hand side has a tiny dot in it, and that’s Earth. Carl Sagan, the popular science guy, once said the following of this picture:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Carl Sagan, ‘Pale Blue Dot’, (c) 1994.

This observation has a lot in common with Douglas Adams’s Total Perspective Vortex storyline from the Secondary Phase of ‘The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy’, where he imagines a machine which drives people insane by showing them how insignificant they are in a vast Universe. This doesn’t succeed in Zaphod’s case, either because his ego is the size of the Universe or because he was actually in a simulated universe set up for his benefit, or strictly speaking his deficit.

The Fermi Paradox, which in case it’s somehow passed you by I will restate here, was voiced by the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, although Konstantin Tsiolkovskii had said something similar in 1933 and suggested the Zoo Hypothesis as a solution. Simply stated, it’s the apparent discrepancy between a Universe in which life is possible and the lack of evidence for the existence of aliens. That is, given that there is intelligent life on Earth, as is often claimed, and that Earth and the Sun are both quite unremarkable, why haven’t we had any contact with intelligent life forms from elsewhere in the Universe? Not only is there no apparent evidence today, but nor does there seem to have been any visitation from aliens at any time in the whole 4 600 million years since this planet formed. Since I’ve mentioned the Zoo Hypothesis, I should probably explain what that is. It’s the idea that we are known to aliens but they have chosen not to interfere with us, at least so far, so as to observe us as an interesting species.

This is actually the solution I favoured as a teenager. I liked the idea that there was a Galaxy teeming with intelligent life forms of various species out there with an ethic of non-interference, who were observing our species undetected. This is also very similar to the Prime Directive of the ‘Star Trek’ universe.

Right now, I have a much more depressing front runner as to the solution, although it’s not as much of a downer as the Great Filter, which now I’ve mentioned it I’ll have to outline, but later. At this moment, the most plausible explanation seems to me to be that phosphorus is relatively scarce. This argument goes as follows: non-carbon based life is unlikely because on this planet silicon is more abundant by far than carbon and yet there’s no silicon-based life here. Phosphorus is the rarest core element required for life as we know it, being incorporated in adenosine triphosphate and nucleic acids such as DNA, and it being so rare suggests that it wouldn’t be used unless there was no alternative. Then it turns out that phosphorus is even rare in our own solar system off-Earth. It’s ten times more concentrated in the human body than in the crust, and more than a thousand times as concentrated in the crust than in the matter of the solar system. Phosphorus only seems to form during a particular kind of supernova explosion, as opposed to within the star before it becomes a supernova and distribute the elements, meaning that phosphorus may only be at all common in certain parts of the Galaxy, and that also may prevent intelligent spacefaring civilisations from spreading far because they might have to take all their phosphorus with them or make it in situ. Moreover, it may be that as the Universe ages more phosphorus will accumulate and it will become more hospitable for life, which means we might just be really early.

I hope this is either not true or that another form of life dominates the Universe, such as plasma-based life living in nebulae or the depths of space between the stars. Nonetheless many other explanations have been offered, one of which is primarily interesting for the purposes of this blog post because of its origin: the Dark Forest.

There’s a famous and celebrated trilogy of SF novels by the Chinese author 刘慈欣 (Liu Cixin). I won’t go into the details of the plot, but the overarching idea in it is that the reason we haven’t heard from aliens is that the rational approach to the existence of extraterrestrial life is to regard it as a threat, and therefore that they’re all hiding due to the threat, and making oneself known, as we have if there’s anyone out there, is foolish and suicidal. More generally Liu Cixin believes that we project artificial positivity onto aliens, regarding them as more enlightened and benevolent than it’s reasonable to expect them to be, while simultaneously underestimating the benevolence of humans. I don’t agree with this at all as I think it’s based on how groups of human beings have behaved under patriarchy towards each other and there’s no reason to suppose aliens have the same characteristics and history as our highly contingent tendencies. However, one interesting aspect of the Dark Forest hypothesis, as it’s known, is that it’s an idea from fiction which has turned out to be taken seriously by theorists dealing with the real Fermi Paradox, and the same is true of the two main ideas I want to talk about today.

The first of these is that we’re embarrassing, and for this I’ll go back to Douglas Adams. In ‘Life, The Universe And Everything’, the (obvious spoilers) premise is that the reason aliens are always invading Earth is that they find the game of cricket to be in extreme bad taste due to a devastating war early in Galactic history. Taking this up and running with it, what if the reason we are not in contact with aliens is that there’s something about the way we are which does something like make us a cognitohazard to them, or that our behaviour or values are so reprehensible that we can’t be accepted in polite society? Maybe we are metaphorically wearing our underpants on our heads, or are like the racist uncle who can’t resist making off-colour jokes.

To state this more clearly, there are intelligent life forms elsewhere in the Universe, and they are aware of our existence. The reason they don’t make contact is that there is something about us they find abhorrent, not physically speaking but along the lines of our customs, culture, values or practices. They find us rude or to have crossed a line they would never dream of doing. Alternatively, they can’t contact us safely because our behaviour constitutes something which would infect their psyche and cause severe damage to their civilisation.

There’s a peculiar visual phenomenon which I’m going to suggest you don’t Google (will that verb be dated soon?) called the McCullough Effect (I’ve deliberately spelt this wrong). It’s hazardous to search for this online, and I have reason to suppose it might be more hazardous for me than the average person. It takes the form of two patches of black and white stripes, one set horizontal and the other vertical. If you look at them for a few minutes, black and white horizontal stripes look pink and black and white vertical stripes green, for a period of about three months. The idea isn’t new, but as far as I know this is the only real world example that’s been discovered so far which works on neurotypical people with good colour vision. My hypothesis here is that there is something about us as humans, or possibly our dominant culture, which has a similarly but possibly more severe harmful effect on aliens who come into contact with us, and therefore we have been quarantined to protect the rest of the Galaxy. If this is true, it isn’t clear to us what it is or whether it’s all-pervasive or permanent.

There’s a less morally-neutral version of this possibility. Maybe our selfishness and materialism have led to us being cast out of the Galactic community, but we aren’t permanently bound to it, and if we free ourselves from it as a species they may make contact. This sounds a little like the idea of the “Fall Of Man”, and one shouldn’t underestimate the role mythology or spirituality may play in causing this idea. Or, it could be something we just can’t guess at, as with Douglas Adams’s example that it’s because some humans play cricket. It could be something as arbitrary as that, which will never occur to us because it’s part of being human. Maybe we’re being shunned, in other words.

The other possibility is suggested by Iain M Banks’s story ‘State Of The Art’. Obviously I need to flag up spoilers here too, but I also need to get on. In this novella, a post-scarcity civilisation called the Culture surreptitiously visits Earth in 1977 and decides that it’s so average that it’s not worth making contact with us. I didn’t get this from the story myself but apparently that’s how most people read it.

To state this more clearly, the solution to the Fermi Paradox is this. We are in a vast and life-rich Galaxy, with plenty of advanced technological civilisations, and we just aren’t that interesting. It isn’t that there’s anything particularly wrong with us or that we’re being studied as the Zoo Hypothesis has it, just that we’re really boring and ordinary. In this scenario, there could be numerous planet-bound civilisations like ours which are also wondering where all the aliens are, but the advanced aliens have all been there and done that, and don’t have much interest in a history of a typical primitive but intelligent species living in a boring old ordinary solar system. We’re simply “Mostly Harmless”, to get back to H2G2. The scale of the Galaxy is such that paying any attention to us would be like getting fixated on a bit of mouldy bread accidentally dropped behind something in the kitchen, which might be interesting to a mycologist but unless it really starts to stink or something, they’re not going to pay much attention to it/us.

This explanation has the merit of according with what we already know about our apparent place in the Universe. We’re on a pale blue dot lost in the vastness of the Cosmos. I had to peer at that picture for a while before it registered with me that Earth wasn’t a random fleck of lint or a bit of dandruff. It is feasible that some kind of survey of the Galaxy could have been undertaken which picked us up, but it’s like a huge shoal of fish. There’s a species of fish called the Lanternfish. Actually there isn’t. There are more than thirty genera of this fish, and it’s a good illustration of my point that I didn’t even know that. The remarkable thing about lanternfish is that they are so numerous that there may be up to sixteen billion tonnes of them in the ocean and they may be the most populous vertebrate in the world. They live in the middle depths of the ocean throughour the world, and in that sense they are important. Their average weight is 250 milligrammes, so a low estimate of their global population is a million times that of the total population of humans in the world. But have we heard of them? Do we think much about them? They’re also one of the most diverse families of fish in terms of number of species, but this still doesn’t really matter to anyone apart fom a few specialist experts. Now consider a single lanternfish. Being a living being, of course it’s important and I’m not about to suggest that I consider it disposable or not worth keeping alive, but to the average person, who is going to care about or even think about such a fish? Maybe this is what the planet Earth and its human population is like to the Galactic community. There is maybe someone in an alien university thousands of light years away who has considered our civilisation as part of their PhD thesis, as a footnote somewhere in a book nobody will ever read, or whatever the alien equivalent of that is, but even that’s a pretty long shot. The sheer scale of the Galaxy supports this idea.

Both of these suggestions have in common that the question “where are all the aliens?” is kind of inverted. It’s more like the Biblical quote “Who is man that Thou art mindful of him?” Maybe the real question is why we would consider ourselves worthy of attention. On Earth, we are a big deal, a big fish in a small pond, but in the Galaxy perhaps we’ve either mistaken a fireplace for a urinal in the home of a prospective in-law or we’re like an individual lanternfish swimming a kilometre down in the Southern Ocean and nobody has any reason to care.

Ordinary Time

This blog post might come out as a confused lump for several reasons. One is that I’m addressing a couple of things which are not closely connected except by possible coincidence within my own life right now. Another is that I’m going to end up not saying a lot of things that I could because those other things belong elsewhere. Finally, this is currently just the germ of an idea which I’m going to try to develop by writing this ad lib.

Right, first there’s “Ordinary Time” and the liturgical year. This is the way some churches divide up the calendar. Not all churches do this, but those that do include the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans. The year is seen as a cycle and different emphases are made at different times of that year. The different periods of the year are referred to as “seasons”, and they include Lent, Eastertide, Advent, Christmastide and the rest of the year. The rest of the year is referred to as “Ordinary Time”, not because of it being ordinary although in a way it is, but because of “ordinals”, i.e. numbers such as “second”, “first”, “zeroth” and so forth. Here’s a useful graphic to explain it in terms of the order in which these seasons happen:

By Patnac – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1057854

There are two lots of ordinary time in the year, separated by all the “weird” stuff. The colours in the calendar above, which looks like a pie chart but isn’t really (it has two segments of Ordinary Time for example), are not just there to make it look pretty but are the actual colours (less pastel usually) used for vestments and hangings. It’s easy to get hung up on the hangings in the sense of the “pretty” colours, but these are really more like the colours associated with chakras than just there to look ice, and they vary according to denominations. I am by no means expert on this because I perceive it as a high church thing, and I haven’t been high church for most of my life. The C of E church I went to as a child was fairly high, but that ended some time in about 1977 or before and I wasn’t Christian at the time.

Just briefly, Advent is the start of the liturgical year and begins four Sundays before Christmas Day. Christmastide is more complicated. It’s longer than just the twelve days the song makes us think of and actually runs all the way up to Candlemas and the Epiphany. Hence there is currently still a box of Xmas decorations in the corner of this room because we only took the tree and stuff down a couple of days ago. Today is 4th February. This isn’t something we’ve done before but it is possibly a good idea. Oddly, Xmas gets extended up through Advent and into ordinary time, but not downward into the actual, proper, real season of Christmas, so really it gets extended in the wrong direction. There are commercial reasons for this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were good reasons for extending it down rather than up, which could be commercialised. As it is, it could work as a kind of anti-depressant practice, as the time around 22nd January is often called “the most depressing day of the year” due to the bills from Xmas coming in around then. After that, ordinary time continues for a variable period due to the movable feast thing, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere . This is followed by Lent, which has a fixed length of six and a half-dozen days. Then comes the three-day Easter festival, apparently called the “Paschal Tridium”, but Easter itself continues as Eastertide, which finishes at Pentecost, sometimes referred to as the first Quaker meeting by the way. Unlike Sarada, I am not a Quaker although I can see the point. Then comes a second period of Ordinary Time, sometimes called Kingdomtide, followed by Advent. Each of these seasons has a different focus. Sarada and I tend to observe Lent and consider observing Advent although we don’t actually go through with it so far, in our daily lives. There’s supposed to be a different focus for each season, some of which are obvious such as Advent, Christmastide, Lent and Eastertide, but I have no idea what’s supposed to happen with Ordinary Time and have never been involved in a church which calls the bigger parcel of Ordinary Time Kingdomtide, which it seems is a Methodist thing.

That, then is “Ordinary Time”. However, this blog post was originally going to be called “Chrononormativity” and later “Normal Time”. I rejected the first title because it’s antilanguage and the second because there’s no such thing as normality. Now at this point I could become all supercilious and pretend chrononormativity is a word I’ve understood for ages, taking up a kind of pretentious “Oh, didn’t you know?” type attitude, but to be frank I haven’t come across it before, mainly because I try really hard to ignore Queer Theory, which is where the notion of chrononormativity comes from. However, the concept of queer temporality has now blown down the door due to ‘Harry Potter’-related stuff I don’t want to go into in depth. In the process of considering queer temporality, it’s come to my attention that not only am I familiar with the concept of chrononormativity, but that it applies across the board to my life and Sarada’s, and I don’t think it’s inappropriate to use it to talk about our lives.

Most of us are familiar that there’s supposed to be a kind of timetable to our lives, which I often think of as a tramline with stops on it. There’s birth of course, followed by infancy and toddlerdom, then pre-school, school, university, a career punctuated by promotions and ending in retirement, and parallel to that a series of incidents and life stages relating to the romantic and sexual side of life, including teenage crushes, a first kiss, dating, losing one’s virginity, going steady, engagement, marriage, having children and the children leaving home and repeating the cycle. There are other rites of passage such as learning to drive and getting a mortgage. all of these things are kind of an ideal, in a way, and are considered “normal”. In reality, lots of non-queer people don’t have lives like this at all, but it’s stil remarkable how many of them do and it’s still thought of as a kind of standard script for life. This is chrononormativity, a word which parallels “heteronormativity”, and there’s an overlap between these events. For instance, marriage has historically been more a part of heteronormativity, and I would argue has to an extent been imposed on queers when it doesn’t necessarily make sense to our/their lives in many cases.

Thinking of my own life history, there are often radical departures from it. For instance, the only time I went on a date it was due to my misunderstanding. I have had three romantic relationships and a one-night stand in my life. The one-night stand was after a party and involved a lot of perplexity on my part, and is probably one of the more ordinary things which has happened in my life. My first relationship was with someone I met in a tutorial group, my second, which was confusing and peculiar, with someone I met in a pressure group and my current relationship with Sarada arose from our friendship after we met through the first person I met. The accidental date arose through a misunderstanding following from a discussion about marriage with an acquaintance I met for the first time that day. I assumed we were just going for a drink in a very literal sense as two people who vaguely knew each other in an unfamiliar city far from home, it petered out when I decided I needed to go to bed due to an early start the next day and only after quite some time later did it dawn on me that it was actually supposed to have been a date. I mean several years later. At no point have I ever successfully asked anyone out, gone to the cinema with them, gone to a restaurant or whatever it is people are supposed to do on dates. They just never figured as part of my life. I don’t know why, or rather, I fail to understand how something like that could ever have been incorporated into my life.

When our children reached a stage where romantic involvement began to appear in their own lives, which was unsurprisingly during their teens, , I realised that I had nothing to share with them or any wisdom to impart about such things, because that, again, simply didn’t existe in my own life. My adolescent experience of romance merely comprised two serial fixations on different individuals, which were intended to shield me from confronting my queerness by being unavailable and unsuitable. That experience, which again I imagine is quite widespread among the “straight” community, just never existed for me. My chief concern here is that it meant there was no “wisdom” to be passed on, whether or not it would’ve been heeded.

This also applies to other parts of my life. I have never really had a career because it feels like there is some kind of language or custom which is in use but I have no way of getting a purchase upon. I am of course a herbalist, but most of what I’ve done with my life has involved parenting, political activism, other volunteering, home edding and church stuff, and eventually caring for my father, all of which has seemed to be outside the realm of what could realistically be considered career-related. I do write of course, but it’s more a compulsion than a vocation and it’s not something I have ever channeled very effectively. Related to this, I’ve never had a mortgage or learned to drive. These are all typical landmarks in someone’s life which are absent from mine.

Although I think Sarada also deviates from chrononormativity, I don’t think I should presume to comment on her life. In terms of the children, through our own experience we chose to make them aware of their option to go to school or otherwise, which they mainly exercised in the form of not being involved in formal education until mid-adolescence. Hence they too deviate from chrononormativity, although this was partly connected to how Sarada and I lived our own lives at the time and it meant that I lacked the option of a “normal” career. This was substantially connected to the role I had in parenting being rather different from what a father is usually expected to have, so that could easily be seen as part of my own queer temporality because I was more drawn to the role of a mother, and other aspects of my life pushed me in that direction anyway. For instance, ninety percent of herbalists are women and they may be pressurised by such things as the demands of motherhood which make it harder to turn herbalism into a “proper” career. What I do, all the time, is “side hustles”, because the central economic activity I’ve been expected to engage in seems to be inaccessible for reasons I don’t understand but may be connected to my neurodiversity. and the consequences of living with that, bearing in mind also that I consider queerness as part of neurodiversity, at least mine.

It’s also instructive to consider the questions of monochronicity and polychronicity here. I think of myself as highly monochronic, although I am also pulled in the direction of polychronicity. Again, these are buzzwords, but worth considering. Northwestern Europe is dominated by monochronic culture. That is, we do one thing at a time, in particular places at particular times, don’t appreciate being interrupted, consider people wasting our time as insulting and see it as linear, among other things. Polychronic cultures, such as those of South Asia and the Med, do several things at once, don’t value punctuality, value interruption, don’t have a concept of time-wasters and see it as cyclical. There’s also a difference in focus. Polychronic cultures tend to observe family obligations more and the people or event one is at rather than anticipating future or even current obligations elsewhere. In India, a bus might be regarded as “coming” rather than turning up at exactly 9:15 am, for example. This leads to a clash in the EU, because Northwestern Europe doesn’t usually have siestas or much of a night life during the week, and the result of this is that the northern Mediterranean is being dragged into conformity with a monochronic approach, probably for economic reasons.

Unlike much of Germanic culture, the English home ed community tends to be polychronic. Families get engrossed with what they’re doing rather than turning up to more communal events at particular times, and the time at which joint events happen tends to be rather flexible. This may be because home edding is more child-centred and can involve a large range of children’s ages, and also mothers tend to be more directly involved than fathers, so there is what might be thought of as a leakage of the pressures and conditioning of female genderedness into home ed more generally. Hence there is a sense in which in Northwestern Europe, polychronicity is more associated with the stereotypically feminine. Although shift work is a depressing necessity for many men, women do a double shift which influences their use of time, and there is therefore a smaller-scale sense in which time for home edders is not “ordinary”. This can be very concrete and practical, since it can involve breastfeeding, co-sleeping and simply not imposing a rigid schedule on the children involved. This is another example of deviation from chrononormativity which probably needs exploring, and in my case is connected again to my queerness.

Ideally there should be some kind of great cycling round to the start of this blog post here in accordance with cyclical time, so that I can somehow link the liturgical calendar to queer temporality, but so far I can only make vague connections. For instance, the liturgical calendar is cyclical and the use of time in Christian worship involves all-night vigils and the midnight mass, but this is all pretty nebulous right now. That said, once again I do think there’s scope for exploration here, and I’d like to conclude by repeating that for me there is a link between queer temporality and polychronicity.

Farewell Wordle

Like a lot of other people, I’ve been playing Wordle every day. This is the online “Bulls And Cows” game similar to the Mastermind peg board game where you have to guess a five-letter word in six goes. I hardly feel it’s necessary to say much more, but you might be reading it years after it’s fallen from popularity, so I will explain it, possibly for the second time since I think I’ve done this already.

Here goes then. Wordle uses a different five-letter word each day. When you type a word, it colour-codes the letters according to whether you have a completely wrong letter (grey), a right letter in the wrong place (yellow) or a right letter in the right place (green). There’s also a hard mode, which only allows you to type letters which haven’t already proven wrong. This isn’t in fact so much harder than slower, although it’s possible to get more right answers if you are allowed to put down more letters you know are wrong because you don’t then have to think of words with absolutely no letters you haven’t tried before.

Now by most people’s standards I am really not good at Wordle. I often don’t manage to guess at all, and up until November 2022 I was worse than average. It made me feel, in fact, that I’m in cognitive decline in some way because most people seemed to do better than me. Wordle has had a time limit on it since it started, allowing something like 2500 words altogether as answers with a much larger pool of words which are allowed but are not answers. A while back, probably on this blog, I did some research into the answers, since at the time there was a complete list of them as they were initially planned to be. I didn’t actually read these answers but it was difficult to handle the text without glimpsing them. What I actually did was to go to a web page listeing all the solutions, which incidentally were present in the source code for the web page for Wordle itself, and I imagine still are, although even there they’re hidden, select all the text without looking and ran it through ROT-13. This is a trivial coding method used to conceal spoilers, where each letter is shifted by thirteen places as if the alphabet is in a wheel, so letters in the second half of the alphabet end up in the first half and vice versa, meaning that A becomes N, B becomes O, N becomes A, O becomes B and so on, making it harder to read. I then selected the list on the page, did tallies of the positions and frequencies of each letter in each position and ran it through ROT-13 again. Yes, it did occur to me that if I knew contemporary programming languages this would’ve been a lot better and I’m guessing it would’ve worked really well in Perl, but that’s just a guess. The result was that the most likely word to come up seemed to be “POINT”. However, given no knowledge of which letters are placed where, the best guesses are sometimes said to be “CRANE” and “SOARE”, and there are also other possibilities based on other criteria. Many people guess “ADIEU” first, which makes some sense because it has four out of five vowels.

My strategy for a while, which I doubt was logical, was to use the word “POINT” over and over again. This gave the same mean probability over the whole list. However, I later changed this to guessing arbitrary words, on the grounds that some would be closer to the correct guess than average and others further. This is kind of what happened, but I didn’t expect it to be so dramatic.

From November 2022, Wordle’s rules changed. The only one I can consciously remember is that they eliminated every plural ending in S or ES. This does mean the number of words ending in S would be smaller, although how much smaller is another question. It also seems to mean fewer words with a penultimate E, although this may not be so because, for example, French passives often end in “EE”, such as PAYEE and MELEE (apparently that’s not a passive, but you get the idea). The other rule changes are – ah, apparently that’s the only change. You wouldn’t think it would make that much difference, but I do know that since that point, there’s a much bigger split in the number of guesses I have to make to get the right answer. Nowadays, there’s been a greater tendency to fail completely or get it first time. I think I’ve fairly got it in one four times now, although on another occasion I saw Sarada’s answer and put that down, which was pretty pointless but maybe a bit compulsive.

The point of this post is to try to get to the bottom of why I’m managing to get so many guesses which are right first time. Since the rule change, the previous frequency of letters in specific places has probably changed. This makes one hypothesis less likely to be correct. I had thought that I could’ve subconsciously learnt the list by studying it after it had undergone ROT-13, but the list having changed, this is probably not the explanation. If it had been, I would’ve had more guesses right first time over the period between deciding to guess arbitrary words and the rule change, but in fact over that period I didn’t get any right first time. It doesn’t explain why I’m also failing more often than before either. Hence I’d reject this hypothesis.

I think there is a possible clue in a slightly similar experience I have. Like a lot of people, although I don’t seem to be able to get my head round a banking app, I do have a keypad for using with online banking. This is probably something everybody knows about and has, if they’ve got a bank account, but if not, here’s an explanation. A few years ago, I got a calculator-like device in the post from my bank which I assumed for quite some time was an actual calculator which they’d for some reason given me for free. In fact you’re supposed to slip your bank card into it and put in your PIN, and it produces a different eight digit number every time which I presume it would be a security risk to put here. This number has a a different form depending on what you’re doing, e.g. transferring money, signing in or retrieving your customer number. Incidentally, have I just explained something everyone already knows? I have no idea. Anyway, every time this thing produces a number, it somehow seems “right” to me, and if I were to be given a random eight-digit number having just entered my PIN, I think I would know if it was correct or not. I have no idea (once again, maybe as usual) why this is. This hunch can, however, be tested. Unfortunately, it can’t really be tested without becoming a potential breach of security, which is a bit irritating.

The keypads are interchangeable, at least for the same bank – I have no idea if they work if your card is put into a different bank’s reader. Thus they don’t store any personal information. I presume what they’re doing is taking the customer’s PIN and their card number, or possibly some other number associated with the account or stored as data on the card, and combining the two to generate an integer between 10⁸ and 10⁹, which can be tested against some number associated with the account. For some reason, although I have no idea how it does this, I get the impression that I can tell that there’s something “right” about the integer in question. I may be wrong about this of course because there’s massive confirmation bias.

What I think may be happening here is that for some reason I’m able to judge subconsciously the process whereby the numbers on the keypad and the answers to Wordle are arrived at. I don’t know how I do this. I do know it doesn’t work very well.

It’s even possible that the method used to generate the wordlist for Wordle is subconscious for the editor as well as the person trying to guess. It is, however, odd that it didn’t work before and now it does, apparently coinciding with a trivial change in the rules.

Wordle has been the first thing I do when I wake up quite often, so it’s possible that my brain is not in a usual waking state when I do it. This morning I actually had a dream about text, where I program a computer to produce the string “Super Siouxsie” in pseudorandom positions all over the screen. I then woke up and was able to produce, in a small roughly circular position in my visual field, a hallucination of various lettters. I’m guessing that most people can do this too, although it does feel a bit like an abuse of my brain to force myself to have visual hallucinations just for fun. However, this took place immediately before I did Wordle, and it occurs to me that having a brain apparently full of letters may be connected to my first-time correct guess. It’s been suggested to me by [po] that it may be a form of sleepwalking, and this makes some sense, but I think it’s more that my mind is in an unusual state when I’m doing Wordle. One way of providing evidence for this would be to time the gap between waking up and playing. If the interval tends to be shorter when I get immediate right answers, that suggests that I am in some way in a different state of consciousness when I do it.

Anyway, I’m a bit freaked out by all this and on occasion Wordle presents absolutely no challenge to me, and on others it presents a literally impossible challenge, so I’ve decided to give up because it isn’t a challenge to my conscious mind. There is no strategy which helps me to win now It was fun while it lasted.


Yesterday was World AIDS Day. I am lucky enough to have been largely untouched by the AIDS pandemic. Some might say it isn’t so much luck as insularity. I was marginally involved in gay liberation and socialising in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and a little more involved in AIDS activism, but I’m not going to pretend it was anything like central in my life. In context, in the early ’80s I desperately wanted to be involved in the Peace Movement and other Left issues but wouldn’t allow myself to because I was too shy, I suppose.

The situation with AIDS and gay liberation was slightly different. I already knew I was queer and this made me sympathetic towards these issues and perhaps marginally involved with them but it seemed appropriative and invasive to consider myself part of that community, and I felt like it would be invasive and being a poor ally to presume to have anything like a central role in such things. AIDS, of course, is somewhat different. The intimacy of this issue is such that I’m going to have to miss some things out of this story.

People should of course not be defined by their cause of death, or at least, not if they don’t mean that to be so. Sometimes fame is about cause of death or other acts. There was a man, Herostratus, whose name is only known today simply because he decided to achieve fame by burning down a temple to Artemis. Someone might be famous for their mode of death. Terrence Higgins himself falls into that category. I wonder who he was apart from that. Consequently, whereas I admit the importance of AIDS as a cause of my friend’s death,

My friend David was twenty-five when he died, and I wasn’t in touch with him when his life came to an end. I wouldn’t exactly describe him as a “live fast and die young” kind of person but the possibly now hackneyed description “highly strung” applied to him well and he certainly engaged in a fair bit of self-destructive behaviour. He came across as posh and sophisticated, possibly as an affectation, and he went by several different names over the period of time that we knew each other. The same was also true of me at the end of our period of acquaintance. The “gay best friend” thing applied to him with several women. He was also the source of puzzlement to me because of a stray comment which has always mystified me and my mystification may be a clue to my own sexuality, but let’s leave that here for now.

The guy was a very heavy tobacco smoker, literally smoking a hundred cigarettes a day. He had a mild stroke as a result, but continued smoking. He also took a deliberate overdose while I knew him, but then that wasn’t unknown among my acquaintances and you could look at that as a typical thing someone in their late teens or early twenties would do. Among other things, it reflects the pressure of having to conform to a society which is unsuitable for almost all its members and being confronted with that after one’s childhood ends. Nevertheless, sex was an important part of his life, and sex with many men to boot. This is if anything even more typical of people’s lives at that age, although the onset of AIDS had altered that somewhat. It actually altered it unexpectedly for some people, in that they took a decadent approach to life, expecting it to end soon in any case, so why bother with protection? This attitude, I suspect, was David’s. He couldn’t see a future for himself in the long run, so why even bother?

At the age of eighteen, he started at our university, when I was twenty. He was a law student, and almost immediately decided that was a poor choice. It was I who persuaded him to switch courses to English Literature, which he found much more fulfilling. Throughout the time I knew him, he wore tweed suits and was somewhat diminutive, an effete White blond man. He was rarely seen without cigarette in hand or mouth. Controversially, although he was left wing himself, his boyfriend was the president of the local Federation of Conservative Students. During a particularly vicious argument in a bar between one of the FCS bloke’s friends, who was already upset about something else when she got there, and a couple of other lefties who were my own friends, he made the observation to me that politics shouldn’t be made personal in that way, and this is one of the things he did and said which have stuck with me ever since. Even so, I admit that I can’t imagine a relationship with someone whose politics were so different from my own, but a friendship is another matter.

He secretly wrote a satirical column for the student newspaper, leading me to wonder if that could’ve been in his future in a world where he didn’t die in his twenties. In this column, he mentioned me as worthy of “the extraterrestrial visitor award” because he said I sounded “like I was from another planet”, which is basically true. I was quite taken with him and wanted to get closer, but it was difficult. He was known for lying a lot, and pretending that he’d always been into a particular bit of culture when in fact it was as new to him as it was to the rest of us. His favourite film was ‘Withnail And I’, which he saw at first release. He was in no way vegetarian, and this became an issue in our house for some people when he moved in.

Yes, I shared a house with him and some others, including one of his almost lovers, when one of us moved out. Up until that point, it had been a bastion of veganism and my now ex-sister-in-law, with whom he absolutely didn’t get on but then that’s almost universal as she was a very unpopular person, though also very close to me at the time, asked me why I was moving someone in “who isn’t even remotely vegetarian”. I think I was influenced by his tolerance of people with different views to his. I was also very happy to have him as a house mate. By that time, he had fallen in love with a very underweight Asian bloke who was anorexic and was writing poems about him. He soon did something rather strange when he moved out without telling me, and several weeks later a mutual friend was rather surprised that I didn’t already know. Because this was a second major deficit to our landlady’s income, this was a rather difficult situation and was only resolved when I got abducted by someone a couple of weeks later, which is, however, another story. I was disappointed that he’d done this. It made me sad because he meant a lot to me. My partner at the time was very angry with him about all this.

Shortly after this, he announced publicly to a meeting at the university that he was HIV positive. Outrageously, a lot of people didn’t believe him and thought he was making it up. To be fair to them, as I’ve said he had a deserved reputation for lying a lot.

At some point in all of this, while we were in touch and after he was tested positive, he tried to make a point by having several mainstream newspapers banned from the Student Union shop, including the Guardian,due to their homophobic content. Reacting to this, the Guardian objected, which is fair comment in a way, but made further homophobic comments in response to what David had had done. I wrote to them complaining about their homophobic language and they replied to me in a rather priggish way I thought, saying that of all newspapers the Guardian was the most progressive mainstream title and that it deserved support. I disagreed, and to this day I haven’t forgotten that they were openly homophobic towards my friend when it was public knowledge that he was HIV positive. I proceeded to boycott the Guardian for several years after that, although I eventually started to buy it again.

After that, he was living a couple of miles away in a much sought-after part of the city and we lost contact for a while. A couple of years later, he was friends with a couple of other housemates of mine and we were back in touch. He also went to the same wedding reception I went to which was significant to me because it was the first time I’d worn a dress in public. According to him, “it wasn’t even a very nice dress”, and he was right, it wasn’t, but I was nervous while buying it and just dragged the first one I saw off the hanger and paid for it in a very embarrassed and self-conscious state. After my housemates moved out, in 1992, I lost contact with him.

For many years after, I had no idea what had happened to him. Then, in 1998, I heard from John Peel’s ‘Home Truths’, a programme on which incidentally my paternal uncle also appeared once, that he had died in 1994. This was from his mother, who clearly wanted to celebrate his life and presented him in a very positive way. This provided me with some kind of closure, although it was quite upsetting at the time to hear about my friend’s death in this way. It turned out that although he did have AIDS, he didn’t actually die of it, but of a heart attack, which I think was probably connected to his tobacco smoking.

You might gather from all this that I didn’t get to know David as well as I wished I had, but I think he was difficult to get to know and I think many of his friends would not be able to fill in too many details about his life. I still think of him from time to time and it still upsets me considerably that he’s gone sometimes. He’s usually the person I think of when the subject of AIDS comes up, which is not entirely fair because he was so much more than just an AIDS victim. Nonetheless, at the risk of repeating myself, he has influenced my life in some ways. He’s partly responsible for my belief that the organisation one respects is in all probability the one you don’t know enough about, and also a factor in my hope that friendship can thrive across the political divide, and therefore my respect for people who happen to be right wing. I don’t claim to be able to understand them but I’m prepared to make the effort and recognise that they are fully-rounded people like me.

Thank you David.


Not companion animals associated with women!

For many years I laboured under the misapprehension that it made sense to lump amphibians and reptiles together under the same heading. This contiued until 1992, when I was organising a library of resources for an environmental charity, and a co-worker made the observation that although the two classes of vertebrate were dissimilar, they kind of belonged together, and the scales fell from my eyes. All the information before me, with which I was already well-acquainted, fell into place all at once and I realised that for most of my life I’d plonked the two together when they absolutely did not belong and were as different as birds and mammals. In fact there’s even a sense in which birds in particular are in fact reptiles.

The reason for this is quite easy to understand. We used to be encouraged to think of life as a ladder and of evolution as progress, probably due to older natural philosophy and history such as that of Aristotle and Biblically-influenced views, which were centred about the idea that the history of the world was oriented around creating human beings as the pinnacle of God’s earthly kingdom, and that certain creatures were superior to others. It’s not difficult to challenge this. For instance, we tend to think that the tendency mammals and birds have to generate an internal temperature higher than their environments via metabolic processes makes us superior to other animals. In reality, it burns calories at a heck of a rate and means we have to eat constantly, and in temperatures close to our bodies’ we have to expend energy keeping ourselves cool enough. Also, many animals who don’t do this can practically or even literally freeze for months on end without coming to any harm. It’s selected for in certain habitats, but against in many others. Another assumption often made about “warm-bloodedness” is that it only applied to birds and mammals today, when in fact many fish warm parts of their bodies internally too, and flying insects also generate their own heat through their frenetic muscular activity. “Warm-bloodedness” doesn’t put us at the top of any tree. Incidentally, it’s also the case that the very earliest mammals, unlike some of their close relatives, were not endothermic, as can be ascertained from their ages at death, which are more typical of lizards than the likes of shrews or mice. Endothermy reappeared in mammals later and also existed in our ancestors, but apparently wasn’t advantageous enough in the late Triassic to continue.

Endothermy is only one thing of course, but we impose these ideas on a world with either no agenda or its own, very alien to how we think. With that ladder idea imposed, vertebrate classes look like they can be organised into a kind of “hit parade”, like this:

  1. Mammals
  2. Birds
  3. Reptiles
  4. Amphibians
  5. Bony fish
  6. Cartilaginous fish
  7. Jawless fish

There are huge problems with this list. The first thing to mention is that there’s no such thing as a fish. This is, however, only true if you regard being closely related as of overriding importance and imposing natural kinds. In fact there is another way of looking at organisms which notes their similarities imposed by evolutionary pressures such as having a streamlined body shape and living in water which allow us to think of whales, ichthyosaurs and tuna as similar, though few would call all three fish nowadays. Speaking of fish, it’s also worth observing that category number 7 is particularly peculiar because it lumps lampreys and the invertebrate though craniate hagfish together, the latter being a sister group of all vertebrates, though possibly not when one looks at their DNA.

Another notable thing about the list is that reptiles and amphibians are next to each other, suggesting an association. In a sense that association does exist, and amphibia and reptiles as we understand them have a fair bit in common, such as ectothermy, no significant insulation on their skin and a splayed gait. In fact there is a kind of archetypal “herpet” which looks like a lizard or a salamander. For instance, this is a palmate newt:

. . . and this is a lizard:

I think that’s an agama but I’m probably wrong. I am, in fact. Other reptiles also look similar, such as crocodiles and tuataras:

In fact there’s a wide range of different animals which all resemble the lizard/salamander external body plan, and to some extent the internal. They are also all ectotherms and certain details of their internal workings are also similar. There are also worm-like forms in both classes, such as the Congo eel, which is a urodelan (I’ll explain that later) and caecilians among the amphibia and the snakes, amphisbaenids and limbless lizards such as the slow worm among the reptiles. All of these are serpentine animals and some also lack eyes. This particular body shape is unsurprisingly widespread among animals in general, as with lampreys, hagfish, eels, and in non-chordates segmented worms and the various other kinds of vermiform animals. However, it’s largely ruled out if an animal generates its own internal heat because the relatively large surface area causes too much heat transference for the animal to compensate for. The closest we mammals get would be something like a weasel.

Then there are the others, and I’m talking about this in terms of surviving forms rather than the large number of species which died out at the end of the Mesozoic. These include chelonians, i.e. tortoises, turtles and terrapins, and anurans, that is, frogs and toads. The German names for the former suggest a superficial similarity with the latter which I can’t personally perceive, but they are dorsolaterally compressed and don’t have long tails. Nonetheless, in terms of their appearance nowadays, there does seem to be substantial similarity between many of these animals although the adaptive radiation in the past means this has not always been so. Going back further, the earliest amphibians and reptiles were more similar in appearance to each other and of course reptiles did evolve from amphibians initially.

Even among mammals there are similarities. The first time I saw baby mice, when I was about six, I was struck by their similarity to lizards. They basically looked like pink reptiles to me, although later observations revealed that they were fatter, facilitating insulation and reducing surface area. The same does not apply to birds of course.

The situation as it stands today is that what we think of as reptiles and amphibians are often superficially more like each other than other classes, but this is partly an illusion created by the extinction of their less similar members. However, this could be more to do with our own biasses than any deep similarity. My impression, though, is that amphibians never really got their day, in the sense that the reptiles evolved from them quite soon after they appeared in terms of a geological time scale. The earliest known reptile, Hylonomus, existed 312 million years ago, and one of the earliest amphibia, Acanthostega, is 365 million years old. Fifty-three million years is a very long time, of course, almost as long as the time since the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out, so amphibians did become fairly diverse over that interval, but they were relatively confined to small, specialised habitats for some of it. They were also the only land vertebrates with more than five digits per limb on a regular basis, although this changed quite early on, possibly at the Late Devonian Extinction Event which only tetrapods with five-digit limbs survived. The number of digits as a dominant characteristic of a particular species is never more than five, and this has been so for 360 million years or more.

It’s also not entirely fair just to say herpets are separate, because reptiles did evolve from them. In fact there came a point where the only real difference between certain amphibians and their reptilian relatives were that the former didn’t lay shelled eggs. Although all today’s amphibia mainly respire through their skins, and there are in fact salamanders living on the land with no lungs at all, their distant ancestors did mainly breathe through their lungs. In fact they had a number of characteristics no living amphibian has: heavy ribs, herbivorous diet, powerful lungs and often impermeable skin. This contrasts drastically with modern amphibia, who often have no ribs, are carnivorous as adults, use lungs for communication more than breathing and breathe through their skins. Today’s amphibia also tend to be small and compressed vertically because otherwise gas exchange wouldn’t be efficient enough. So drastic is this difference that there used to be a theory that lissamphibia, the modern amphibia, were not descended from the ancient ones but had evolved independently, from fish. This is, however, not so, as can presumably be determined by their DNA.

Reptiles are also an issue as such, because just as there’s no such thing as a fish, nor is there really such a thing as a reptile, though for more complex reasons. If dinosaurs are considered reptiles, so are birds. In fact, as a child I not only assumed birds were reptiles but was surprised when they turned out to be warm-blooded. This is a little odd considering that they can often fly, because they would need to be able to get through a lot of energy in a short period of time to do so, which would either generate heat or require it to happen. This implies that pterosaurs would be warm-blooded even if other evidence didn’t already show them to be, such as possessing fur.

There is a reptilian grade rather than a reptilian clade. A clade is all organisms descended from a particular common ancestor, so for example mammals are a clade. Reptiles are, though, not a clade. Considering birds as non-reptiles means they exclude certain animals sharing common ancestry with them. Crocodiles are more closely related to humming birds than to monitor lizards. Nonetheless, being a reptile seems to be a real thing.

By User:ArthurWeasley – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19462479

Archaeothyris, the ancestor of mammals, looks so much like a lizard it’s untrue. Moreover, it evolved only six million years after the first reptile, which is the same amount of time since we and other Afrikan apes had a common ancestor, so the chances are it’s descended from an amphibian rather than a reptile or it would be much closer to other reptiles. This means that they are physically similar rather than closely related. They do have a common ancestor, but it’s probably among the amphibia.

Tuataras are in fact closest to snakes and lizards although they diverged in the Permian, long before the dinosaurs appeared, so humming birds are more closely related to crocodiles than tuataras are to iguanas in spite of their appearance. Reptilianism is a phase animals go through. It isn’t a group consisting of closely related animals. That’s slightly misleading in fact, because it partakes of the idea of a ladder. Many animals are “still” reptiles and that’s absolutely fine. If this planet’s climate gets warmer, the advantage mammals have over current reptiles will be considerably smaller and the reptiles could gain on them and confine them to smaller niches. Nonetheless, there is something of a tendency for lizard-like or salamander-like animals to become less lizardy as time goes by, as can be seen with frogs, turtles, birds and mammals.

This brings me to a peculiarity I can’t quite put my finger on. The currently surviving orders of amphibia are the salamanders (urodela), frogs and toads (anura) and caecilians (gymnophionta). These are each morphologically quite distinct. Urodela are often lizard-like although their bodies can become very elongated and they include tadpole-like forms who breathe through external gills. Anura lack tails, sometimes have long back legs and occasionally have frilly gills on their rear ends. Gymnophionts are blind and worm-like, but with gills. In other words they tend to be quite unlike each other. By contrast, reptiles include crocodilians, lizards and tuataras, who are all usually rather similar in form, and mammals include rodents, shrews, possums and hyraxes, all of whom are again somewhat similar although unlike all reptiles and amphibia. Well, it so happens that there used to be a fourth order of amphibia until fairly recent times known as the allocaudata, a name which translates as “other tailed”. These were very similar to salamanders but not closely related, and their last representatives lived in Italy just before the recent ice ages. In other words, there were still allocaudates when genus Homo had already evolved.

Allocaudates shared the world with non-avian dinosaurs, then dropped out of the fossil record for millions of years, only to reappear in Europe by the Neogene, which is the current geological period (as opposed to epoch like Pleistocene). Unlike all living amphibia, they had fish-like scales. It’s probably worth mentioning that although reptiles and fish are both scaly, those scales evolved independently. Fish scales are basically teeth. Reptile scales are horny and appeared as they evolved from amphibia. Allocaudate scales are bony and like fish scales, so it’s as if their bodies are covered in teeth. They were able to capture prey by shooting their tongues out like chamaeleons and frogs. Some salamanders can also do this. Their teeth were three-pointed and they had the ability to move their heads around by shaking and nodding, which salamanders and other amphibia can’t do. In other words, they were quite a bit lizardier than salamanders. I find it saddening that Homo sapiens missed them by a geological whisker, even though these differences are fairly arcane. They may also have been lungless. Their history is oddly patchy, with a gap in the Eocene followed by reappearance in the Oligocene. The final genus, Albanerpeton, probably died out because the climate of Italy ceased to be cool and humid and became Mediterranean. They were most similar to lungless salamanders generally, but not at all closely related. A reconstruction of Albanerpeton starts this post.

Therefore, it can be seen from all this that once fish needed to navigate shallow water low in oxygen, they were wont to become salamander-like in form, and this form was likely to be stuck to by many of their descendants because it was flexible and suited to a wide variety of environments.

This post is about to lurch in an unexpected direction, rather like David Icke a few weeks after I met him and was disturbed by his wide staring eyes.

So, reptilian humanoids then. It’s important to note first of all that this is used as code for anti-Semitism. Since it’s no longer acceptable to be anti-Semitic, people use this to promote racist ideas by another name. All that said, just as I chose to talk about the merits and considerably greater demerits of the Welt Eis Lehre a few weeks ago, it’s possible to talk about reptilian humanoid conspiracies in a similar way, for there are several. The basic idea is that reptilian humanoids either originated from a star system in the constellation of Draco, the Dragon, or from Earth itself. In the latter case, they may have stayed here or left and then come back again.

I feel the need to state up front that I’m confident no version of the reptilian conspiracy hypothesis is true. I also think an effort should be made to rename the concept “conspiracy theory” to “conspiracy hypothesis” unless the claim has been tested in a similar way to scientific theories and is falsifiable. Some effort needs to be made to pass these ideas through a testing process. And some of them do in fact pass, such as the Tuskegee syphilis scandal and Cambridge Analytica, so the term “conspiracy theory” is entirely respectable and applicable. Getting back to the subject, and bearing in mind its potentially anti-Semitic nature, the reptilian conspiracy hypothesis is not literally true.

The idea varies somewhat but the basis is roughly as follows. Intelligent life forms referred to as “reptoids” or “reptilians” either originated from Earth or a star system in the Draco constellation. If terrestrial, they left Earth and returned, and if not, they settled here. Their purpose is either to take our gold or to feed on our negative emotions. To this end, they sustain a world order which fosters suffering. The ruling elites are all related and have two tiers, the higher of which are shape-shifters and the lower either genetically modified or hybrids with humans. They may also be in allegiance with the greys (flying saucer folk) and be from another “dimension”, which means from another realm which is separate from the physical universe as we understand it such as the spirit world, Hell or Heaven. Ordinary people are programmed not to recognise them. They tend to be hypotensive, intelligent and into science, with Rh negative blood, and colonised the world along with their human allies from a location in the near East. I don’t know how accurately I’ve described the situation as it’s generally understood by people who believe in it. It doesn’t seem to be a coherent, fixed set of beliefs and is reminiscent of the variations found in left wing politics and established religions.

One notable thing about this belief system is its apparent parallel to radical politics at both ends of the spectrum, in that it’s associated with racism on the one hand and the idea of an unjust, self-sustaining concentration of power and privilege at the other. Were it not for the connections with White supremacy, these people could be allies of socialists. When David Icke came out with all this stuff, which didn’t originate with him, it did occur to me that it would constitute a neat way of discrediting radical politics to have an apparent psychotic involved at the top of the Greens, but as usual my response to this is to avoid speculation, think about the consequences and how to address them.

It’s tempting to use the fallacious argument from incredulity here to object to the hypothesis, but that’s probably not necessary. The easier view to criticise is the extraterrestrial origin version. If the reptiloids are literally sentient reptiles, there is the issue of whether reptile-like animals could evolve elsewhere in the Universe. There are two contrary tendencies here. One is that vertebrates seem to constitute an improbable body plan, so reptiles as such are more improbable than that. The issues are that many phyla are improbable in any event, that the dominance of vertebrates may be down to luck and that vertebrate bodies are particularly unusual. There are three types of skeleton in the animal kingdom: exoskeletons, hard endoskeletons and hydraulic endoskeletons. Shelled molluscs, sea urchins and insects are examples of animals with hard exoskeletons, and these facilitate movement in some cases and are merely protective in others. Hydraulic endoskeletons support the body from inside using fluid and can also aid movement. There seem to be two phyla with hard endoskeletons in the animal kingdom, among vertebrates and sponges. Some sponges have hard mineralised endoskeletons like our own, but they serve to anchor the animal rather than help it move: they’re scaffolding, like ours, but scaffolding which is there to prevent things from falling off or shifting. Vertebrate skeletons are unique among Earth animals because they actually help us move as well as having a protective function, among other functions such as being a reserve for certain elements and producing blood. Features of other phyla are often shared, in particular the possession of a hard, jointed covering, and the sheer success of insects suggests that if the arthropod form is probable in the first place, it’s likely to be successful. Limitations on their size can be overcome by swarming or by the possession of different respiratory organs such as the arachnid booklungs, and it’s conceivable that if complex animal life does exist elsewhere it could be insectoid and consist either of groups of small insects or just large arthropods like giant lobsters. This evolution could crowd out any vertebrate-like phyla which exist and although they might still occur, they could be minor like brachiopods or priapulids. There was also a point when chordates were rare and priapulids, a particularly small phylum, were more widespread than they were. All of this counts against the idea of literal reptiloids being out there somewhere.

On the other hand, it’s also apparent that if land vertebrates do evolve, reptiloids seem to be probable. As I mentioned before, the reptilian state is a grade rather than a clade, i.e. a phase that vertebrates tend to pass through rather than a specific class of closely related animals, and this could mean that on other worlds this is a common fate for the descendants of ichthyoids, their own bodies being somewhat constrained in form by the need for streamlining in a liquid. Straight-shelled cephalopods are, however, also streamlined. There are, then, two contrary “forces” here. One seems to make dominant vertebrates improbable but the other, conditional on their existence, seems to make the reptile grade probable. I suppose this means there are a lot of small snakes in the Universe, and maybe lizards, but everywhere they’re found, they’re quite rare, except here on the Planet Of The Snakes.

A simpler idea, in a way, is that the reptoids came from Earth in the first place, left and came back again. I think some claim they hide inside the planet, i.e. underground. There’s also the question of the “schism”. There is a belief that the copious and world-wide myths and legends of dragons, many of whom can talk, and serpents, reflects a memory of a time when the reptoids lived among us. Moreover, the Biblical legend of the Nephilim are taken to imply that they “interbred” with humans. This last cannot literally be true because it would entail them and us being at least closely-related species, so genetic engineering would be the only true possibility there, even theoretically. It’s rendered much less likely with the sequencing of the human genome, since although we share plenty of genetic material with reptiles and amphibia, so do all other vertebrates. There is nothing particularly reptilian about the human genome compared to other apes, although our hands are more primitive than theirs and therefore more similar to the forelimbs of many reptiles.

The terrestrial origin version has the virtue that it does not posit the independent evolution of life elsewhere in the Universe unless we are ourselves from elsewhere as an entire biosphere. In that sense, it’s more parsimonious than the version where the reptoids have alien origin. The idea is presumably that at some point in prehistory, some reptiles evolved sentience and tool use, and left the planet. Perhaps surprisingly, this isn’t beyond the realm of feasibility. If we’re talking about dinosaurs, there are now species such as African grey parrots and crows who have human-like intelligence, so brain size is not the only factor here. The problem is that no non-avian dinosaurs survived the Chicxulub Impact, so it would either have to be other reptiles or they would have had to have done it before that event. There are several signatures in the rocks suggesting widespread use of technology in the Eocene, something like twenty million years later, but this is to some extent the Age of Mammals. It should also be said that the terms “Age Of Reptiles” and “Age Of Mammals” are somewhat misleading, as relatively large mammals and mammaliforms were common before the end of the Mesozoic and there were also large reptiles throughout the Cenozoic until humans came along and presented them with problems of survival, either directly or through competition or habitat destruction. The absence of fossilised artefacts is insufficient evidence for their absence, since in a few million years’ time no such traces of human technology will have been preserved either.

Even so, it’s a big leap from the idea of intelligent reptiles evolving on Earth in the Eocene and leaving the planet to the idea that they have come back and are dominating human beings from behind the scenes fifty million years later. “Reptoids” aren’t that similar to real reptiles. For example, they are supposed to be shape-shifters capable of screening human perception so that we continue to perceive them as human even though they’re said to be larger than we are. It’s true that some animals are camouflaged and some change colour, blending in with their surroundings. Although chamaeleons change colour, its main function is social signalling, although with reptoids it could be technological in nature. What I’m getting from all this is that reptoids really aren’t much like actual reptiles and it leads me to wonder why they are referred to in that way. They seem to be conjectured to be an intelligent tool-using species which evolved on this planet in the past, used to be overtly involved in human lives and is now covertly so. Philip K Dick once mentioned a concept he called “zebra”, which was the idea that just as other species were unable to perceive potential predators or prey due to their camouflage, so might there also be a form of camouflage which humans were unable to detect, meaning that there could be uncanny entities hidden in plain sight. This is an unfalsifiable claim again, but one I find highly appealing, maybe for a fictional scenario rather than in reality.

When it gets taken further, the resemblance to reptiles gets even smaller. It’s sometimes believed that reptoids feed on negative energy generated by their creation of a dystopian society and that they’re native to another dimension and in league with the saucer people.

To be honest, I have subscribed to a similar belief myself with the negative energy thing, because we live in a world where there is simply no need to exploit people any more, and yet there are still poor people and I think this is for two reasons. One is that it isn’t enough for some people to feel successful and be rich. It’s also necessary for some of them to have other people to look down on. It’s a kind of mass sadism. The other is that the creation of an underclass scares people and makes them less “uppity”. Like many other aspects of this conspiracy hypothesis, there’s a germ of truth in the belief system, and if it were acknowledged to be metaphorical rather than literal it wouldn’t be so questionable.

Can we pull this all together then? Herpets are not a single clade but a phase of evolution, and they are superficially very similar. It’s even possible to assert reasonably that they’re a natural kind even if they aren’t closely related, but by approaching them in a more ecological and biophysical way than in terms of genetics and evolution. In the meantime, reptoids are also in a sense herpets since as they stand they partake of a quintessence of reptilianism without literally being reptiles. The conspiracy hypothesis lends itself to being encoded racism, or perhaps racialism in the sense that it’s an organised and conscious set of ideas based on notions of ethnicity. At the same time, it could be shorn of all its racist elements and be seen as a “cry of the oppressed creature”, as Marx once put it: a kind of quasi-religious set of beliefs which through special pleading is not allowed to fail. It’s also a distraction from consequences, as so many things are. There also seems to be a lot of incomplete understanding in it. For instance, what exactly is a dimension if it is neither a direction nor temporal? Are they referring to non-causally related parallel universes?

To conclude, then, herpets are cool and our instincts cause us to malign them unfairly like a cat jumping at the sight of a cucumber. They’re also special because even if life in the Universe is common, reptiles probably won’t be. The people to be afraid of, if such a category exists, are the mammalian primates, including ourselves, whose motives are suspect, and the revolution starts from within and our control of our own lizard brains, not “out there” against the reptilian King.