Blindsight by Peter Watts: notes and references (part III)

This is part III of a series of posts on longform quotes from Peter Watts’ Blindsight (in particular the notes and references section), available in its entirety online; you can see the first part here and the second part here.

Here’s Watts on the anatomy and physiology of “scramblers”, one of the more alien aliens I’ve encountered in fiction (believe me, I set the bar for plausibly alien aliens very high (emphasis on the second link), as does Watts since he’s a biologist and knows something about how life works; Lem’s Solaris is just the beginning):

“Like many others, I am weary of humanoid aliens with bumpy foreheads, and of giant CGI insectoids that may look alien but who act like rabid dogs in chitin suits. Of course, difference for its own arbitrary sake is scarcely better than your average saggital-crested Roddennoid; natural selection is as ubiquitous as life itself, and the same basic processes will end up shaping life wherever it evolves. The challenge is thus to create an “alien” that truly lives up to the word, while remaining biologically plausible.

Scramblers are my first shot at meeting that challenge— and given how much they resemble the brittle stars found in earthly seas, I may have crapped out on the whole unlike-anything-you’ve-ever-seen front, at least in terms of gross morphology. It turns out that brittle stars even have something akin to the scrambler’s distributed eyespot array. Similarly, scrambler reproduction— the budding of stacked newborns off a common stalk— takes its lead from jellyfish. You can take the marine biologist out of the ocean, but…

Fortunately, scramblers become more alien the closer you look at them. Cunningham remarks that nothing like their time-sharing motor/sensory pathways exists on Earth. He’s right as far as he goes, but I can cite a precursor that might conceivably evolve into such an arrangement. Our own “mirror neurons” fire not only when we perform an action, but when we observe someone else performing the same action79; this characteristic has been cited in the evolution of both language and of consciousness80, 81, 82.

Things look even more alien on the metabolic level. Here on Earth anything that relied solely on anaerobic ATP production never got past the single-cell stage. Even though it’s more efficient than our own oxygen-burning pathways, anaerobic metabolism is just too damn slow for advanced multicellularity83. Cunningham’s proposed solution is simplicity itself. The catch is, you have to sleep for a few thousand years between shifts.

The idea of quantum-mechanical metabolic processes may sound even wonkier, but it’s not. Wave-particle duality can exert significant impacts on biochemical reactions under physiological conditions at room temperature84; heavy-atom carbon tunnelling has been reported to speed up the rate of such reactions by as much as 152 orders of magnitude85.

And how’s this for alien: no genes. The honeycomb example I used by way of analogy originally appeared in Darwin’s little-known treatise86 (damn but I’ve always wanted to cite that guy); more recently, a small but growing group of biologists have begun spreading the word that nucleic acids (in particular) and genes (in general) have been seriously overrated as prerequisites to life87, 88. A great deal of biological complexity arises not because of genetic programming, but through the sheer physical and chemical interaction of its components89,90,91,92. Of course, you still need something to set up the initial conditions for those processes to emerge; that’s where the magnetic fields come in. No candy-ass string of nucleotides would survive in Rorschach‘s environment anyway.

The curious nitpicker might be saying “Yeah, but without genes how do these guys evolve? How to they adapt to novel environments? How, as a species, do they cope with the unexpected?” And if Robert Cunningham were here today, he might say, “I’d swear half the immune system is actively targetting the other half. It’s not just the immune system, either. Parts of the nervous system seem to be trying to, well, hack each other. I think they evolve intraorganismally, as insane as that sounds. The whole organism’s at war with itself on the tissue level, it’s got some kind of cellular Red Queen thing happening. Like setting up a colony of interacting tumors, and counting on fierce competition to keep any one of them from getting out of hand. Seems to serve the same role as sex and mutation does for us.” And if you rolled your eyes at all that doubletalk, he might just blow smoke in your face and refer to one immunologist’s interpretation of exactly those concepts, as exemplified in (of all things) The Matrix Revolutions93 . He might also point out that that the synaptic connections of your own brain are shaped by a similar kind of intraorganismal natural selection94, one catalysed by bits of parasitic DNA calledretrotransposons.

Cunningham actually did say something like that in an earlier draft of this book, but the damn thing was getting so weighed down with theorising that I just cut it. After all, Rorschach is the proximate architect of these things, so it could handle all that stuff even if individual scramblers couldn’t. And one of Blindsight‘s take-home messages is that life is a matter of degree—the distinction between living and non-living systems has always been an iffy one95, 96, 97, never more so than in the bowels of that pain-in-the-ass artefact out in the Oort.”

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