I’ve been a bit lax lately about posting, so here’s another retro review, from July 24, 2013, while I prepare some new stuff.
Review: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, Annalee Newitz, 2013.
I was rather hoping for kind of an updating of Isaac Asimov’s A Choice of Catastrophes: The Disasters That Threaten Our World, a survey of all the things that could wipe out humanity and how humans could prepare to survive them.
There’s a lot to like in this book. Newitz reminds us there were more mass extinctions in Earth’s history than just those two publicity hogs, the Permian and K-T. And even the dinosaur extinction may not be as simple as a big space rock smacking the Yucatan. She nicely sums up state of the current Neanderthal debate. Did we kill them? And, if they did leave us some of their genes, was it rape or a peaceful merging of cultures? Though she accepts the idea of harmful anthropogenic global warming, Newitz reminds us we don’t have to shut down industrial civilization to mitigate it. She reminds us that’s also not a path without plenty of technical, scientific, and political complications. But she also knows that environmentalists like the famous Bill McKibbin have chosen an arbitrary state of nature to preserve and fixate on. Finally, I can’t hate any book that touches on so many interests of mine: geology, the Black Death, and science fiction.
However, I think anybody who even pays just casual attention to science journalism is going to find this an overpriced book with a fair amount of padding and digressions.
The padding? The history of cyanobacteria on Earth and the migratory patterns of the gray whale are interesting, but it would have been nice if Newitz would have used examples from human history to illustrate the survival strategies of adaptation and remembering. The engineering of cities to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis is certainly interesting and a worthy goal, but neither type of disaster threatens the extinction of our species.
The digressions? While the ability to grow food in a city, particularly an underground city is quite indispensable in the event of a supervolcano or that deadly duo from space, a gamma ray burst or asteroid strike, the section on San Francisco as the “City of Tomorrow” comes off as naïve (and native) boosterism by Newitz for a city, in other eyes, full of moral preeners escaping, in their green zone, the problems they cause or aggravate elsewhere.
The book is, Newitz admits at one point, an argument for why man needs to move into space. I agree with that goal, and, in that regard, I was glad to see an update on the progress to build space elevators, but the argument could have been shorter (and cheaper) or more detailed. Often, the book leaves the connections between some parts less than clear and further reinforces the impression of some chapters maybe starting their life as articles on Newitz’s IO9 website.
I also liked the bizarre visions of literally organic city buildings though the problem of gene exchange and evolution thwarting our designs is barely touched on. There is also a section on radical attempts to capture solar energy via organic photosynthetic methods rather than silicon photovoltaics. That sort of runs in opposition to the urban utopians we meet who somehow think, with all this cheap, future energy, we will want to live the life of local famers.
The book does conclude logically, though, with a look at transhumanism – the promise and pitfalls and complications of changing the human condition by changing our bodies and brains. However, for me, Newitz’s final analogy of our transhuman descendants regarding us fondly as we do our pre-Neanderthal ancestor, seems an emotionally unconvincing conclusion to her story. I feel more emotional kinship with a German Shepard than Australopithecus I’m afraid.
But, if you are familiar with no more than two or three of the topics covered here, then you probably won’t mind this wandering book and just look on it as a fascinating grab bag of articles.
Reviews of other non-fiction titles are on the Non-Fiction page.