Homo Martis: A New Species May Soon Dawn

Mars One

We are on the verge of creating an entirely new species of human.

Now, my clear penchant for genetics, technology, and biomedical research might have you thinking that I’m referring to some kind of cybernetic monstrosity concocted by the New World Order to act as their war minions and slave class.  I might be, on any other day.  Today though it’s something different.

The correct term for this process, the process of creating new species, is speciation.  It’s what happens when a new branch of evolutionary identity starts to grow away from what’s currently known.  It happens all the time, mind you.  Every form of life on Earth is evolving, always have been, always will be.  In large populations – like the human population, which is somewhere near 7.3 billion people as you read this – speciation is rare.  In fact, the human population is undergoing pretty much the opposite of speciation right now.  We intermingle and breed across diverse genetic groups, and this has the effect of homogenizing our collective gene pool.  In terms of the health of our species as a whole, this is a favourable thing.  It creates gene lines with diverse origins, and tends to promote the most successful genetic traits that our various races maintain.

I’m sure you’ve seen the picture of the beautiful Mediterranean woman, with the golden brown skin and incredible green eyes, whom scientists claim embodies the typical human female appearance in several hundred years.  That picture is the product of statistical analysis based on common phenotypes and diversity trends from around the planet.  Eventually, Homo sapiens will sport a typically brownish skin colour, will maintain certain height and weight ratios, and will have predominantly greenish eye colour.  That isn’t to say that lighter or darker skin colours won’t exist, or that brown or blue eyes will be unheard of, it just means that on average, those traits will become rarer over time.

As mentioned, speciation is almost the exact opposite.  It’s what happens when part of a population becomes separated and isolated from the rest.  Over time, the two groups will evolve in different directions.  This is because the new mutations that appear in each group with each new generation aren’t shared between them, and thus they take distinctly different paths from the point of separation.  If, at some time in the future, they again come into contact with the other group, they can again begin to diversify their genetic identity, as long as they haven’t been separated for so long that they’re no longer genetically compatible for mating purposes.  When that happens, it’s considered that a new species has emerged.

This happens all the time, and has happened since the first single celled organism came into being a couple billion years ago.  It’s easiest to see in populations of animals that we’ve bred for specific characteristics, such as dogs, cattle, chickens, and even in wheat and corn.  In the case of dogs for example, at some point in our past, once an advantageous relationship had been formed between wolves and man, the men started selecting pups from litters that had the best chance of having the most desirable traits.  Eventually, the humans began limiting the opportunity to breed to only the animals that showed those characteristics, which gave those animals (and their genes) a better chance at survival.  In time, the humans had bred an entirely new species of canine, the dog.  It was distinctly different from the wolf, both in appearance and behaviour, and through continued selective breeding ultimately became what we know as the hundreds of different dog breeds there are today.

In the case of dogs, however, that separation or isolation I mentioned that’s necessary for speciation wasn’t a physical barrier or great space between the animals.  It was the humans actively selecting for desirable traits.  So some cross-breeding did occur between the parent species of wolf and the modern dog (and still does today), so while domesticated dogs are considered a unique species, they aren’t so different from wolves that they’re genetically incompatible.  This fact is why we have some breeds of dog that aren’t readily identifiable to the layman; we call them mutts, usually.  These dogs are the product of genetic diversification among the many breeds alive today, and are another example of the homogenization of genetic traits in large populations.

As I said, the key part of this process is the separation of the two breeding populations.  It needn’t be a physical barrier, a large distance is often all it takes for the speciation process to begin.  All one needs to do is look at the striking variety of Galapagos finches, as Charles Darwin did, to see that even short distances, combined with unique evolutionary selection pressures is enough to start the ball rolling.

And this brings me to the precipice we humans seem to be standing on.

I suspect there isn’t a single person reading this who isn’t aware that NASA and other space agencies around the world are planning a manned mission to Mars.  If you weren’t aware of that, well you are now.  That mission is exciting and holds much potential for scientific advancement, as well as the sheer thrill of achieving something, as a species, that’s never been done, and was long thought completely impossible.  Interplanetary travel!  Incredible!

Mars One, whose mission is to “establish a human settlement on Mars”, is largely thought by experts and non-experts to be a one-way-mission.  That is, those who are selected to go will not be returning to Earth.  In other words, it’s a suicide mission, albeit a scientifically fruitful one.  At this point, we don’t really know how long or how successfully those lucky (or unlucky) astronauts will be able to survive on the surface of the red planet, though I don’t think there’s anyone betting on them becoming a permanent Martian colony.  That doesn’t mean we won’t get to that point eventually, it’s just that these first pioneers of deep-space travel aren’t likely to survive beyond their own lifetimes, however long that may be.

But here’s the interesting bit; if they do manage to survive indefinitely, or more likely, when we send another crew to establish a permanent colony in the future, those people will effectively become Martians.  Their home will be Mars, not Earth.  If/when those people begin to breed on the Martian surface, in what can only be described as an alien atmosphere, with drastically different values for gravity, oxygen, CO2, UV radiation, visible light radiation and a hundred other variables, their offspring will live their entire lives in an environment that applies such drastically different evolutionary selection pressures that there’s no telling how they might end up.  And given enough time, say 50 generations, perhaps more, the sons and daughters of the first Martian settlers will no longer be human.  Given the vast distance between the planets, the likelihood that physical contact between worlds will be extremely rare, and the enormous difference in selection pressures in that environment, establishing a settlement on Mars is not akin to colonising another planet, but rather splitting humanity into two distinct, and eventually, two genetically incompatible groups…or species.

I won’t dare to tell you whether the above is a desirable outcome or not, for I’m very much undecided myself.  It invokes visions of interplanetary war, exotic Martian diseases, and the emergence of new space-cultures so alien to us now that our imaginations are utterly incapable of envisioning them.  Though I do wish I could look into the future and get a glimpse of our Homo martis neighbours.

News Briefs 03-06-2015

Same old relentless change...

  • Aussie student proves existence of plasma tubes floating above Earth.
  • Missing link found between brain, immune system - with major disease implications.
  • Mystery company blazes a trail in fusion energy.
  • 'Purring' Wolf Spiders softly serenade mates.
  • Unconscious use of 'medical marijuana'? Hunter-gatherer cannabis use linked to fewer internal parasites.
  • Scientists think MDMA might have a surprising effect on autism.
  • Cambridge University research links endangered Pontic Greek dialect to Ancient Greek.
  • 'New species' of ancient human found.
  • Scientists probe mysterious wave of antelope deaths.
  • Ancient 2,400-year-old gold bongs discovered in Russia.
  • New evidence shows that catastrophic climate change probably destroyed 96% of species at the end of the Permian period.
  • Early native American 'casino' found in Utah cave.
  • Fully dressed and preserved 350-year-old corpse of French noblewoman found.
  • Science has outlined four ways that our universe could meet its doom.

Quote of the Day:

Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

George Bernard Shaw

Strange & Norrell : I - The Language of Birds

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In March 2006 my wife and I flew over to Dublin, Ireland for the first time in either of our lives as guests at the third annual Phoenix Convention (or P-Con, as most people know/knew it). The guest of honour that year was Susanna Clarke – author of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell which had, at that point, already been out for eighteen months and won a Hugo Award. I, a chronically slow reader at the best of times, had not yet started reading the 800ish page novel, and I think that Leah was only part of the way through it. Nevertheless, we found that we got on well with Susanna and her partner, sci-fi writer Colin Greenland – who were both lovely, charming and funny – and the brief time we spent together over the course of the con was very enjoyable. It was perhaps two years later that I finally finished reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I have on only a couple of occasions in my life finished a book and at once turned to the front to begin reading it again. I thought about doing that with Strange & Norrell but I am, as I have said, a very slow reader. Instead I immediately downloaded the thirty two hour long audio-book version which to date I have listened to perhaps three or four times.

In a piece entitled “Why I Love Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” published on the Guardian website recently, Neil Gaiman recalled writing to the book's editor to say that it was, in his opinion, “the finest work of English fantasy written in the past seventy years". I am not so widely read as Mr. Gaiman and I don't pretend to be an expert in such matters, but what I can say with certainty is that I, like Neil, love Strange & Norrell. The blend of alt. history and fantasy, the handling of Englishness and of English Magic, of otherness and madness, the subtly, the comedy, the eeriness, the epicness – in every sense; all these factors combine to make Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a work which does not so much stand apart as it does occupy a space that seems no other work could ever fill. It is as though a Strange & Norrell sized gap waited hungrily on some shelf in the realm of forms up until a decade or so ago.

Today, in 2015, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series for the BBC and as I type we are three episodes in here in the UK. With Clarke’s wonderful world of magicians theoretical, practical, and street being beamed into living-rooms across this scepter'd isle, now seems like an ideal opportunity to pluck out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like and take a closer look at them.

I. The Language of Birds

We are, at the opening of Strange & Norrell, introduced to the Learned Society of York Magicians, all of whom are theoretical magicians. As their president Dr. Foxcastle explains it:

"[Theoretical] magicians study magic. The history of magic. We do not perform it. We don't expect an astronomer to create stars, or a Botanist to invent new flowers.

The York Magicians are gentlemen historians, antiquarians who would never dream of casting a spell of their own yet they have studied, discussed, and wrote upon the subject. The precious few texts the York Society have to examine are chiefly those deemed unworthy to reside within the prodigious library at Hurtfew Abbey belonging to Mr. Gilbert Norrell.

Susana Clarke provides extensive footnotes (near two-hundred in total) throughout her book, outlining an entire fictional history and corpus of magical scholarship. She divides what we may think of as Magic Books into two broad categories: Books of Magic and Books About Magic. The former were largely written pre 17th century during the era of the potent Golden Age magicians. The latter mostly dating post 17th century, written by the less accomplished (sometimes wholly powerless) Silver Age magicians and those who followed them. Books of Magic are of the greatest interest to the practical magician, leaving only Books on Magic (and precious few even of them) for theoretical magicians to study.

More than thirty Magic Books (and papers) are mentioned in Strange & Norrell. Several, such as How to putte Questiones to the Dark and understand its Answeres and Gatekeeper of Apollo, are mere titles but we do get considerably more detail about a handful of others. One of the most intriguing of these is Treatise concerning the Language of Birds by Thomas Lanchester upon whose possible contents and origins it might be fun to speculate a little here.

"There is nothing else in magic but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void. There is no creature upon the earth with such potential for magic. Even the least of them may fly straight out of this world and come by chance to the Other Lands. Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King."

- from Treatise concerning the Language of Birds by Thomas Lanchester

In Kabbalah, Renaissance Magic, and Alchemy, the language of the birds was considered a secret divine language and the key to perfect knowledge. In this context the language of birds was also sometimes also referred to as the langue verte, or Green Language.

In Norse mythology a taste of dragon's blood could grant the consumer the gift of understanding the birds as, according to the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga saga, it did for the hero Sigurd. Sigurd's story is also depicted in the eleventh century Ramsund carving in Sweden.

In the old folk tales of Wales, Germany, Greece, and beyond there is a long tradition of protagonists being granted the gift of understanding the birds by some magical means. The birds then invariability go on to inform or warn the hero about some danger or hidden treasure following the same patten as the stories of Sigurd (see Russian folk tale The Language of the Birds for an example).

In writings by and upon the ancient Greeks the ability to understand birds is often attributed (though perhaps metaphorically) to real people such as the philosophers Democritus, Anaximander, and Apollonius of Tyana, as well to mythical figures like the soothsayer Melampus.

Most wonderful is that kind of Auguring of theirs, who hear, & understand the speeches of Animals, in which as amongst the Ancients, Melampus, and Tiresias, and Thales, and Apollonius the Tyanean [Apollonius of Tyana], who as we read, excelled, and whom they report had excellent skill in the language of birds: of whom Philostratus, and Porphyrius [Porphyry] speak, saying, that of old when Apollonius sate in company amongst his friends, seeing Sparrows sitting upon a tree, and one Sparrow coming from elsewhere unto them, making a great chattering and noise, and then flying away, all the rest following him, he said to his companions, that that Sparrow told the rest that an Asse being burdened with wheat fell down in a hole neer the City, and that the wheat was scattered upon the ground: many being much moved with these words, went to see, and so it was, as Apollonius said, at which they much wondered."

- from De Occulta Philosophia libri III by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, 1533

Tiresias was one of the most celebrated soothsayers of the early ages of Greece. He lived in the times of Oedipus, and the war of the seven chiefs against Thebes. He was afflicted by the Gods with blindness, in consequence of some displeasure they conceived against him; but in compensation they endowed him beyond all other mortals with the gift of prophecy. He is said to have understood the language of birds. He possessed the art of divining future events from the various indications that manifest themselves in fire, in smoke, and in other ways but to have set the highest value upon the communications of the dead, whom by spells and incantations he constrained to appear and answer his inquiries and he is represented as pouring out tremendous menaces against them, when they showed themselves tardy to attend upon his commands."

- from Lives of the Necromancers: or, An account of the most eminent persons in successive ages, who have claimed for themselves, or to whom has been imputed by others, the exercise of magical power by William Godwin, 1834

The belief that the vocalisations and behaviours of birds are indicators of things yet to come runs deep. In England we have the tradition that if the Tower of London ravens (once wild birds attracted by ready supply of carrion supplied by executions, now tame corvids with clipped wings) leave, the Crown will fall and Britain with it. The the 18th century One for Sorrow rhyme is another example, still recited by many upon sighting a gathering of magpies (which is, after all, called a tiding). Birds do speak, of course, and there are still those who understand them.

A study conducted in Yellowstone National Park in 2002 recorded ravens socializing with wolveseven when there was no potential prey or carrion present. The ravens were seen swooping down to pull wolves’ tails, interacting with wolf pups at den sites and engaging in playful chasing. Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven, Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, and advisor on the study, also frequently observed ravens hunting with wolves. This relationship between the two species was deemed especially interesting considering that wolves were absent from Yellowstone National Park for nearly seventy years until their reintroduction in the mid-1990s. [1] Our own bond with the ancestors of today's domestic dogs began during the Stone Age, when humans were hunter gatherers working with the canines to secure food for the two species, just as the ravens and wolves still do. Tales of hunting interaction involving wolves, ravens, and humans figure in the storytelling of Tlingit and Inuit Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Some of these stories describe the birds tipping in flight, effectively pointing with their wings, to direct hunters to caribou.

In Africa today there are fifteen species of honeybird and, as you might deduce from their name, they're quite interested in bees and their nests. In truth it is not so much the honey the birds are after as the larvae and wax contained within the hive. Breaking into a nest to get at the honey comb is a nigh on impossible task for these relatively small birds which is why they talk to humans. First formally studied in the 1980s, the nomadic Boran people of Kenya have a longstanding agreement with the honeybirds of that region.

"Each partner knows how to get the other’s attention. To attract the birds, the Borans call them with a penetrating whistle (known in the Boran language as Fuulido) that can be heard over a distances of greater than a kilometer and that is made by blowing air into clasped fists, modified snail shells, or hollowed-out palm nuts. Comparably, hungry honeyguides flag down humans by flying up close, moving restlessly from perch to perch, and emitting a double-noted, persistent “tirr-tirr-tirr-tirr” call." [2]

The bird flies along then perches on a branch waiting for the human to catch up, then flies on again leading the would be honey gatherer on toward the nearest hive. The behaviour and calls of the honeybird (or honeyguide as they are also known) also indicate other factors like the distance of the hive from the current location. Arriving at the nest (which is still often unseen by the person following) the honeyguide gives a new call and once again modifies its behaviour.

This call differs from the previous guiding call in that it has a softer tone, with longer intervals between successive notes. There is also a diminished response, if any at all, to whistling and shouting by humans. After a few indication calls, the bird remains silent. When approached by the searching gatherer, it flies to another perch close by, sometimes after circling around the nest. The resulting flight path finally reveals the location of the colony to the gatherer. [...] After using smoky fires to reduce the bees’ aggression, the Boran honey gatherers use tools or their hands to remove the honey comb, and then break off pieces to be shared with their honeyguide partners." [3]

In so many of the old stories the idea is that, through the power of flight, birds could travel vast distances, see things no human eye could, and report back to one who spoke their language. One could argue that, in the 21st century, drones are beginning to practically fill the role of Odin's legendary Hugin and Munin. Yet drones are mindless, soulless things, alien invaders in any natural landscape, whereas birds have been here far, far longer than we humans.

No longer, as in my youth, do we describe the dinosaurs as having died out – not completely, at least – because birds are now classified as modern theropod dinosaurs. In a paper published only last month scientists reported a new fossilised specimen of a previously undiscovered feathered bird species, Archaeornithura meemannae, which lived roughly 130.7 million years ago in north-eastern China. [4] That is 128 million years older than the oldest human remains which were discovered in Ethiopia recently. [5] Their ancestors were the closest things to dragons that ever lived, soaring high above everything while our shrew-like furry forbears squeaked and scurried for cover. We must have looked up into the sky in fear at first but over time, generation after generation after generation after generation, that fear turned to awe. How did they move through the air? Forces and powers we could not comprehend, things outside of our own nature and experience. Magic. What did they see? What did they know? If only, thought the hominid, we could speak the language of the birds.

REFERENCES

[1] http://web.archive.org/web/20061008004734/http://fwp.mt.gov/news/article_4663.aspx

[2] http://animalwise.org/2012/01/12/show-me-the-honey-honeyguides-and-humans-team-up-at-dinnertime/

[3] Isack, H., & Reyer, H. (1989). Honeyguides and Honey Gatherers: Interspecific Communication in a Symbiotic Relationship Science, 243 (4896), 1343-1346 DOI: 10.1126/science.243.4896.1343.

[4] http://time.com/3847987/researchers-bird-ancestor-discovery/

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31718336

http://hurtfew.wikispaces.com

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_the_birds

News Briefs 02-06-2015

Start at the end, because the beginning is the end.

Thanks @AnomalistNews, and @UnlikelyWorlds.

Quote of the Day:

Machine. Unexpectedly, I'd invented a time

Alan Moore

Experiencing the True Horror of Sleep Paralysis

Fuseli - The Nightmare

As with many strange phenomena, much of the conversation about sleep paralysis tends to come in the form of the debate between skeptics and believers as to whether these bizarre experiences are 'real' in any way, or just odd tricks of the brain. But what that discussion often lacks is acknowledgement that - to those who 'suffer' from sleep paralysis - the experience feels real. Which makes the often-terrifying aspects of these experiences just that much more visceral and traumatic.

In a post on sleep paralysis here early last year I noted that Rodney Ascher - director of the acclaimed Stanley Kubrick-related documentary Room 237 - was seeking sleep paralysis experiencers for a new documentary he was beginning work on.

I've been obsessed with it ever since it used to happen with me (in my case, I saw sort of a living, 3D shadow looming over in me in judgement)... The film is going to be largely built on interviews with people who've had vivid, first-person experiences with it (and have given some serious thought to what's really happening to them).

Ascher has now finished his documentary, simply titled The Nightmare, which is being released this week in selected cinemas as well as on iTunes and other 'Video on Demand' outlets. And, as befits a director whose last documentary was about The Shining, by all reports the new release manages to capture well the horror experienced by people upon waking in the dead of night:

In a recent interview with Vice, Ascher tells how finding a community of experiencers, and scientific explanations, helped him cope with his own bouts of sleep paralysis - but still left nagging questions that continue to fascinate him:

I was convinced it was a supernatural experience—I thought I was in danger of demonic possession, and it took a long time before any alternate explanations offered themselves up to me.

...this had happened to me when the internet was in its earliest days, so there wasn't really anything that I could use to research what I had experienced. I think if I did, I wouldn't have looked it up as a sleep disorder. I would've been researching something about, like, ghosts and the supernatural, which is how it felt to me. When I decided to research it a little bit, and see if I could find other people sharing their experiences or find scientific explanations for what was going on, I was astonished to see the sheer number of people out there who had gone through it; who were telling the details of their stories, some of which were even more bizarre and frightening than my own, in a way that they were starting to understand what had happened to them. That was fascinating to me, and made it clear that there was a bigger story here.

But none of that stuff gets at questions of, well, why do different people see the same thing? Or if people are all dreaming similar things, should there be a clearer understanding of what dreams mean? The questions I'm interested in about why people see what they see and how they struggle to make sense of this stuff are questions that aren't strictly scientific.

You can keep up with the latest news and release dates for The Nightmare via the documentary's Facebook page.

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News Briefs 01-06-2015

Ill at the moment, so please excuse the abbreviated news briefs...

Thanks Carneous, @AnomalistNews, and @CoraxSays.

Quote of the Day:

Material existence is entirely founded on a phantom realm of mind, whose nature and geography are unexplored.

Alan Moore

News Briefs 29-05-2015

“All mass is interaction.”

Quote of the Day:

“The real problem in speech is not precise language. The problem is clear language.”

R. Feynman

They Rode the Flying Saucers: Upcoming Documentary About Contactees

Right after Kenneth Arnold's sighting of 9 Chevron-shaped objects flying at great speed near mount Rainier in June of 1947, the American media was flooded with similar reports coming from all around the country. The modern era of UFOs had begun, and during the next decade civilian associations like NICAP and APRO were founded in an attempt to understand the nature and origin of these objects, as well as to demand transparency from the government which was suspect from the beginning of hiding what it knew about them to the public.

During their arduous struggles in trying to gather evidence which could prove the existence of what they believed were extraterrestrial craft visiting our planet, these investigative associations were consistently forced to change their expectations about what flying saucers could and couldn't do. When only reports of high-altitude objects were deemed credible, there soon came sightings at close range; when sightings at close range were finally accepted, they were followed by reports of actual landings; when landing cases were reluctantly deemed credible, there soon came sightings of the saucer occupants leaving their craft and interacting with the witnesses. As seasoned abduction researcher Dr. Leo Sprinkle once said to Mike Clelland during an audio interview, the phenomenon is forever one step ahead of us, and is always delighted to shatter whatever comfortable preconception we might have of it.

One preconception that has always been hard to accept --even to this day-- is the idea that UFO occupants would establish a long-lasting relationship with a particular witness, choosing him or her as their appointed ambassador to the rest of Humanity. And yet that's exactly what a few individuals claimed during the 1950's and 60's, speaking before amazed audiences --and suspicious government agencies-- about their regular encounters with these beings; these were not tentacled monsters coming to our planet with ill-intents, they said, but our (very human-like) brothers from outer space, bringing a message of love and universal peace to mankind.

Both NICAP and APRO always considered people like George Adamski and George Van Tassel, with their stories of mingling with angelic Venusians and etheric spacecraft, to be nothing but crackpots at best --or hucksters and attention-seekers at worst; and now that the tools of modern Science has shown Venus to be an inhospitable hell-hole, and the photos taken by Adamsky or others have been proven to be hoaxes, our opinion of the Contactees has only worsened.

But now comes a new documentary by film-maker Patrick Connelly, intended to take a fresh, new look at that fascinating moment in XXth century history, when the wounds of WWII were still fresh and the new threat of nuclear annihilation loomed menacingly above the seemingly tranquil suburban landscapes of America. A time when people looked to the sky searching for answers, yearning for someone who could save us from ourselves.

They Rode the Flying Saucers is still in production, and will feature interviews with scholars like historian Aaron Gulyas who wrote a book about the Contactee era, as well as my friend Greg Bishop who has always been enamored with the tales of the Space Brothers --Greg interviewed Patrick last year on his show Radio Misterioso, so if you wish to listen to the podcast click here.

To learn more about the film, visit its official website. And just to get you Urantians ready for a vibration-raising weekend full of interplanetary kinship, here's the Carpenter's 1970 classic Calling Occupants from Interplanetary Craft:

Are you ready for the transmission to commence?

Kung Fury: The Greatest Movie of all Time

Words are inadequate to describe the pure genius that is Kung Fury. Except maybe Hackerman, And Triceracop. And Barbarianna, Kung Fuhrer, Thor. Yeah, they're all good words.

Some NSFW language and gore. Also: Laser-raptors!

(thanks Carneous!)