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Time Traveler

Michael Novacek

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Future of Life
Author: Edward O. Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf (Borzoi Books)
January 2002, xxiv+230 pages, $22.00 (hardcover)


by Wes Burnett

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Dreams of Electric Sheep


Michael Novacek’s dad was a jazz guitarist and that rubbed off on him. Much of his youth, most of it spent in Los Angeles, culminates in dodging the draft and aspiring to be a rock ‘n’ roll guitarist. If some of the folks he hung out with are any indication, he must have been good. Had he persisted, he might have made it. But he made a mistake. He went on a god-awful summer field trip and decided to become a Senior Vice President and Provost of Science at the American Museum of Natural History instead.


This book is about Novacek’s journey from a child with a precocious interest in rocks and fossils to a wannabe rocker to one of science’s leading paleontologists. It’s a wonderful story, but if it’s another book about dinosaurs you want, this probably isn’t it. To begin with, Novacek’s first love and real specialty is mammals, and it shows. For every index entry to dinosaurs in the book, there is 1.6 to mammals. Mammals’ earliest evolution coincides with the rise and fall of dinosaurs so dinosaurs figure in Novacek’s narrative, mostly, only as they relate to mammals. During the age of dinosaurs, mammals left behind tons of bones that vary in size from small to really small. Much of their paleontology is done with microscopes. Once dinosaurs got out of the way, mammals got bigger and the techniques become more familiar to us, but with or without dinosaurs, mammalian taxonomy and paleogeography are a mess – an important mess since they become us.


Novacek’s book, however, is not really about either dinosaurs or mammals. It is about becoming a scientist, generally, and a field scientist, particularly. Novacek’s awakening as a scientist he attributes to his teachers. Foremost among these are his parents, whose freedom of thought encouraged the child’s inquisitive whims. Then there were the professors, those at UCLA, San Diego and Berkeley, who opened doors and tolerated the conflicting demands placed on him by his guitar, an ugly war and his own sense inquiry, independence and adventure. His testimonial is genuine and loving. His serious inquiry into paleontology began, not with the textbooks or in the laboratory, but with an almost accidental, and apparently undeserved, opportunity to do field work as an undergraduate. And here is the book’s true story, the development of a field scientist. He’s a city slicker with no qualifications, not so much as a driver’s license, much less the wilderness skills of a Boy Scout dropout. Well, no qualification except an attitude. He writes of a childhood memory of the Grand Canyon, of an aspiration to know ‘...its gullies, crevices and caves, never returning to the same spot. I was cast adrift on a great sandstone sea. I was lost in the rocks and lost in time.’ And of the first summer’s field work on ‘chain gang in the service of science’, he writes that it was good to get away from normal people to the ‘empty places, like the Caballo Mountains, with a few other eccentrics.’


As a writer, Novacek has several remarkable traits. The first is his ability to write about the most godforsaken places, from Eastern Montana to Mongolia, with a sublime gracefulness that makes the reader almost taste the sand and smell the dust. I actually got a sunburn between pages 135 and 150. Without indulging in silliness or romanticism, his pen brings reality to today’s world, and life to the world of a couple of hundred million years ago. Second, he describes painfully difficult methodologies and the structure of complex theories with a simplicity that is enviable. Without even noticing it, the reader comes to understand how a CAT scan works and is applied in paleontology, why the Eocene mammalian assemblage is important, and why continental drift is such a stunningly important idea.


Lastly, Novacek has an uncommon ability to write about himself naturally and honestly. He makes mistakes, serious ones. His judgment is often poor, very poor. He gets sick, sometimes through his own foolishness. Scorpions sting him. A horse nearly does him in. He has accidents. Diarrhea lays him low and just at the wrong time. He has stupid confrontations with drunken caballeros over cigarettes. He has run-ins with bandits. But his modesty and his sense of humor makes all this part of the adventure, what one simply comes to expect while working on a chain gang in the service of science. This book creates the feeling of a genuine conversation with a dear friend, and one regrets when it is over. Besides this being a wonderful collection of essays about mammals and dinosaurs, about doing science and fieldwork in some very strange places, the book itself is physically charming. The printing is beautiful, and it is abundantly illustrated with line drawings, some of them among science’s classics, that are well integrated into the text. The maps are almost stupendous and do what they are supposed to do, let the reader know where all those places in the text are. The index works. The endnotes are useful but there is a catch. They are not referenced in the text so the reader has continually to remind himself to check on the notes for each chapter. It is worth the effort, since Novacek includes references, among other things, to useful, and he hopes, enduring, web pages.


In his last chapter, Novacek reflects on the lessons we learn from paleontology. Among them, the most significant is that the biosphere, that thin shell of living matter that covers virtually the entirety of Earth, is far from being durable. It is, in fact, very delicate and has gone through at least 5 episodes of marked depletion, some so serious that life’s escape from virtual extinction is a miracle. We are now in the sixth period of extinction, the one caused by us.


The consequences of this sixth period of extinction is the topic that Wilson takes up in The Future of Life. Wilson, now 72, is arguably America’s leading ecologist, a student of insects, particularly ants, and his intellectual history includes articulation of the theories of island biogeography and an advocacy of sociobiology, a controversial, emotional topic. Like Novacek, he has done his time on a chain gang in the service of science. Wilson begins his discussion by noting that economists and ecologists have the same intellectual concern, production and consumption, but the data and time reference of the two professions are substantially different. Economists worry about increasing, or at least sustaining, production and consumption. Ecologists worry about the natural limits of both production and consumption. Human population growth is the key to understanding our limits of production and consumption, and our present population growth, more like bacteria than mammals, is bringing us dangerously close to Earth’s limits. Though different models produce different results, the best bet is the human population will reach a zenith at 9 to 10 billion sometime in the second half of the 21st century and then begin a slow decline.


We’ve a chance of making it through this transition but the place to watch is China. With a fifth of Earth’s population crammed into two well-beaten river valleys, China is approaching its final population crisis decades before the rest of us will get there. If China makes it, it will provide important lessons for us all. If China fails, we’ll all probably go down in the sinking ship.


Starting with Hawaii, the earth’s most isolated archipelago, Wilson examines what happens to species in this transition. Basically, big habitats, or islands, are cut into small habitats that act in accord with island bio-geographic theory. Species go extinct a lot faster than their loss of habitat alone would suggest. Cut a habitat in half and more than half the species disappear. In the process, endemic and specialist species take an awful beating while a limited number of generalist and exotics prosper. Cockroaches make it, rufous crowned rollers don’t. As predators, we go for the big, slow and tasty, first. Then, we turn to the rest with a patient viciousness. Some folks kill rhinos because they can make 10 years salary in one afternoon. Others kill through their fads: it took yuppies only about 8 years to virtually extinguish white abalone just because eating white abalone was the thing to do.


One way to value nature is to examine what it would cost to replace the free goods it gives us with manufactured goods. For example, in the South ‘maw nature’ gave us lots of free water. With urbanization, water is no longer free. It has to be cleaned and piped which costs money as our water bills reflect. Were we to substitute all of nature’s freebies for manufactured goods, the global GNP would have to increase by a factor of three. Obviously, we can’t do this, we’d go extinct first. But right now, it is exactly what we are trying to do. The inflationary pressures associated with environmental depletion and the substitution of the manufactured for the natural will drive us all back into the caves before the end of the century.


Wilson is cautiously hopeful about the future. He thinks the world has awakened to its environmental crisis, and that it has the will and tools to do battle. The tools, maybe. The awakening, much less the will, is another matter. The United States, a nation that doesn’t even have a population policy and seems convinced that short-term market economics is alone the solution to every problem, is willfully recalcitrant. Rather than gird our loins for the environmental struggle, we avoid thinking about it, preferring instead a Hundred Years War against terrorists that is supposed to protect the American way of life, going shopping in our SUVs. Ironically, the religious conservatives of a variety of flavors are beginning to take a stand on God’s creation, and it is one that scares the political conservatives pea green. It’s a long shot, but the environment may yet ally Islamic fundamentalists, the Christian Right and Orthodox Judaism.


We may survive this century’s demographic transition, but Wilson makes it clear that many species won’t make it with us. By the 22nd century, humankind will enter a new age, one Wilson calls the Age of Loneliness.


Phillip Dick anticipated Wilson and drew a picture of that Age of Loneliness in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a sad story about a dystopia where we can’t tell the difference between ourselves and our machines, and where we are so desperate for the fellowship of other critters that we pay dearly for robot surrogates. Seeing a real toad in the desert drives us to ecstatic euphoria. Dick’s important allegory was lost as pop culture converted it into Blade Runner, first a dumbed-down cop-hunts-renegade-robots story, and finally just another awful computer game.


Possibly it is time to think about electric sheep again. In Wilson’s coming Age of Loneliness, they and a few cockroaches may be the only friends we have.

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