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- Bex shrugged. “You think anybody’s going to listen to a bunch of scientists? No offense. But nobody has so far.”
- Prologue (p. 6)
- If you were part of a group there was always the chance that the predator would take the next guy, not you. It was a cold-blooded lottery that paid off often enough to be worthwhile adapting for.
But there were disadvantages to group living: mainly, if there were large numbers of you, there was increased competition for food. As that competition resolved itself, the inevitable result was social complexity—and the size of the adapids’ brains had increased so that they were capable of handling that complexity. Then, of course, they were forced to become even more efficient at searching for food to fuel those big brains.
It was the way of the future. As primate societies became ever more complex, a kind of cognitive arms race would continue, increasing smartness fueled by increasing social complications.
- Chapter 5 “The Time of Long Shadows” section I (p. 113)
- There was no design in this: no sense of improvement, of purpose. All that was happening was that each organism was struggling to preserve itself, its offspring, and its kin. But as the environment slowly changed, so through relentless selection did the species that inhabited it. It was not a process fueled by life, but by death: the elimination of the less well adapted, the endless culling of inappropriate possibilities. But the potential of an unseen future was no consolation to those who lived through the relentless culling.
- Chapter 5 “The Time of Long Shadows” section II (pp. 120-121)
- The rodents’ vast litters incidentally offered up much raw material to the blind sculptors of natural selection; their evolutionary rate was ferocious.
- Chapter 5 “The Time of Long Shadows” section III (p. 132)
- On the longest of timescales, over millions of years, the workings of chance defied human intuition. Humans were equipped with a subjective consciousness of risk and improbability suitable for creatures with a lifespan of less than a century or so. Event that came much less frequently than that—such as asteroid impacts—were place, in human minds, in the category not of rare, but of never. But the impacts happened even so, and to a creature with a lifespan of, say, ten million years, would not have seemed so improbable at all.
Given enough time even such unlikely events as ocean crossings from Africa to South America would inevitably occur, over and again, and would shape the destiny of life.
- Chapter 6 “The Crossing” section IV (p. 185)
- With his eland meat Brow was able to reinforce his political position among the men—and buy access to the women, which was ultimately the only purpose of his endless battle for dominance.
- Chapter 9 “The Walkers” section I (p. 256)
- There were other ways for primates to live, other kinds of societies that could be imagined. But once the pattern had been set, it was all but impossible to break.
- Chapter 9 “The Walkers” section I (p. 257)
- Relentless Pleistocene selection was shaping everything that would make up humanity. Even love was a by-product of evolution. Love, and the pain of loss.
- Chapter 10 “The Crowded Land” section II (p. 308)
- If you were capable of thinking of an object from more than one point of view, you could imagine it doing all sorts of things. For Mother, consciousness was becoming more than just a tool for lying.
- Chapter 11 “Mother’s People” section I (p. 337)
- The emergent humans were still animals, still bound by natural law. No innovation in the way they lived would have taken root if it had not given them an adaptive advantage in the endless struggle to survive. An ability to believe in things that weren’t true was a powerful tool.
- Chapter 11 “Mother’s People” section IV (p. 367)
- A growing belief that behind every event lay intention—be it an evil thought in the mind of another, or the benevolent whim of a god in the sky—was perhaps inevitable in creatures with an innate understanding of causality. If you were smart enough to make multicomponent tools, you eventually came to believe in gods, the end of all causal chains. There would be costs, of course. In the future, to serve their new gods and shamans, the people would have to sacrifice much: time, wealth, even the right to have children. Sometimes they would even have to lay down their lives. But the payback was that they no longer had to be afraid of dying.
- Chapter 11 “Mother’s People” section IV (pp. 370-371)
- In this marginal land accurate information was at a premium; to know the land was to prosper, not to know it meant starvation, and experts were a lot more valuable than bosses.
- Chapter 13 “Last Contact” section I (pp. 406-407)
- Her story was a creation myth, a legend already more than twenty thousand years old. Such tales—which said that Jahna’s people were the pinnacle of creation, that theirs was the only right way, and that all others were less than human—taught the people to care passionately about themselves, their kin, and a few treasured ideals.
But to the exclusion of all other humans, let alone such non-people as the Old Man’s kind.
- Chapter 13 “Last Contact” section III (p. 432)
- It (i. e., agriculture) was the most profound revolution in hominid living since Homo erectus had left the forest and committed themselves to the savannah. Compared to this phase shift, the advances of the future—even genetic engineering—were details. There would never be so significant a change again, not until humans themselves disappeared from the planet.
- Chapter 14 “The Swarming People” section II (p. 456)
- But even if it is true, even if we are governed by the legacy of an animal past, then it is up to us to behave as if it were not so.
- Chapter 15 “The Dying Light” section III (p. 501)
- In the last centuries of the empire, educational standards and literacy had fallen. In the dulled heads of the masses, distracted by cheap food and the barbaric spectacles of the coliseums, the values on which Rome had been founded and the ancient rationalism of the Greeks had been replaced by mysticism and superstition. It was—Honorius had explained to his pupil—as if a whole culture was losing its mind. People were forgetting how to think, and soon they would forget they had forgotten. And, to Honorius’s thinking, Christianity only exacerbated that problem.
“You know, Augustine warned us that belief in the old myths was fading—even a century and a half ago, as the dogma of the Christians took root. And with the loss of the myths, so vanishes the learning of a thousand years, which are codified in those myths, and the monolithic dogmas of the Church will snuff out rational inquiry for ten more centuries. The light is fading, Athalric.”
- Chapter 15 “The Dying Light” section III (p. 502)
- The fault is all ours. We have become overwhelming. About one in twenty of all the people who have ever existed is alive today, compared to just one in a thousand of other species. As a result we are depleting the earth.
But even now the question is still asked: Does it really matter? So we lose a few cute mammals, and a lot of bugs nobody ever heard of. So what? We’re still here.
Yes, we are. But the ecosystem is like a vast life-support machine. It is built on the interaction of species on all scales of life, from the humblest fungi filaments that sustain the roots of plants to the tremendous global cycles of water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. Darwin’s entangled bank, indeed. How does the machine stay stable? We don’t know. Which are its most important components? We don’t know. How much of it can we take out safely? We don’t know that either. Even if we could identify and save the species that are critical for our survival, we wouldn’t know which species they depend on in turn. But if we keep on our present course, we will soon find out the limits of robustness.
I may be biased, but I believe it will matter a great deal if we were to die by our own foolishness. Because we bring to the world something that no other creature in all its long history has had, and that is conscious purpose. We can think our way out of this.
So my question is—consciously, purposefully, what are we going to do?
- Chapter 16 “An Entangled Bank” section I (pp. 509-510)
- What makes you think anybody with power will listen to a bunch of scientists? They never have before.
- Chapter 16 “An Entangled Bank” section I (p. 513)
- As the natural systems of the planet broke down, humans would discover conclusively that they were still, after all, just animals in an ecosystem; and as it died back, so did they.
- Chapter 16 “An Entangled Bank” section II (p. 525)
- “You aren’t doing much for morale, Sidewise.”
Sidewise shot back, “And what about my morale? It does me no damn good to ignore what’s blindingly obvious all around us.”
- Chapter 17 “A Long Shadow” section II (p. 539)
- Nothing mankind had done in its short and bloody history had made the slightest bit of difference to this patient geographical realignment.
Meanwhile the Earth, left to its own devices, had deployed a variety of healing mechanisms, physical, chemical, biological, and geological, to recover from the devastating interventions of its human inhabitants. Air pollutants had been broken up by sunlight and dispersed. Bog ore had absorbed much metallic waste. Vegetation had recolonized abandoned landscapes, roots breaking up concrete and asphalt, overgrowing ditches and canals. Erosion by wind and water had caused the final collapse of the last structures, washing it all into sand.
Meanwhile the relentless processes of variation and selection had worked to fill an empty world.
- Chapter 18 “The Kingdom of the Rats” section II (p. 579)
- For the genes it made sense, of course. Otherwise it would not have happened.
- Chapter 18 “The Kingdom of the Rats” section III (p. 597)
- Life had always been chancy. And now life had found ways of surviving the ultimate extinction event. In new oceans and on strange lands, evolution had begun again.
But it had nothing to do with mankind.
- Chapter 19 “A Far Distant Futurity” section III (p. 636)
- Anyhow, that’s our story. And I think, in my glimpses of the great encompassing mechanism that has shaped us all, I’ve seen a little of the numinous. That’s enough of God for me.
- Epilogue (p. 644)
Ages in Chaos (2003)
- All page numbers from the American trade paperback edition published by Forge ISBN 978-0-765-31268-6
- Ussher’s intense and obsessive project seems very odd to the eyes of a modern scientist. After all he had deduced the age of the Earth without looking at a scrap of physical evidence—not a single rock.
- Chapter 2, “The first day of the creation is deduced” (p. 17)
- Francis Bacon, who died in the seventeenth century, argued strongly that philosophy and theology should be kept separate, and that we should concentrate our studies on the local problems and the interconnections between material and efficient causes. Final-cause analysis was just a distraction: ‘Inquiry into final causes is sterile, and, like a virgin consecrated to God, produces nothing.’
- Chapter 5, “The Earth’s blood is the veins of its waters” (p. 43)
- Buffon’s work created a great furore, of course. The theologians at the Sorbonne condemned him, and Buffon dutifully retracted. But he wasn’t sincere: ‘It is better to be humble than hanged.’
- Chapter 6, “Upon this chaos rode the distressed ark” (p. 55)
- ‘He set no great value on money, or, perhaps, to speak properly, he set on it no more than its true value.’
- Chapter 8, “A cursed country where one has to shape everything out of a block” (p. 68)
- In his reliance on evidence, preferably obtained at first hand, Hutton was showing the way to the geological methods of the future.
- Chapter 8, “A cursed country where one has to shape everything out of a block” (p. 70)
- Despite his friendship with Adam Smith, he believed in government intervention in agriculture, as it was too important to be left to market forces and chance: ‘The husbandman maintains the nation in all its ease, its affluence and its splendour,’ he wrote. But farmers too had a responsibility for the public good. Rotation of crops, ensuring equal acreages of different crops at any given time, would help keep prices stable.
- Chapter 10, “Assemblies of good fellows” (p. 95)
- Hutton became very critical of a system where appointments depended not on merit but on the support of those in power. Of one possible opening for Watt he wrote, ‘I think it only needs to have a man properly bestir himself but that is what few political people do unless to serve themselves.’
- Chapter 11, “The power of heat is unlimited” (p. 105)
- His overriding lesson for thinkers like Hutton was that scientists, even those occupied by an apparently ‘concrete’ discipline like geology, need to be careful not just about what they claim to know but also about how they claim to know it. Human reason is a fragile thing and prone to be overthrown by suggestibility.
- Chapter 13, “Britain derives nothing but loss from the dominion” (p. 124)
- ‘If, in pursuing this object, we employ our skill in research, not in forming vain conjectures; and if data are to be found, on which Science may form just conclusions, we should not long remain in ignorance with respect to the natural history of this Earth, a subject on which hitherto opinion only, and not evidence, has decided. For in no subject is there naturally less defect of evidence, although philosophers, led by prejudice, or misguided by false theory, have neglected to employ that light by which they should have seen the system of the world.’
- Chapter 14, “We have now got to the end of our reasoning” (p. 130)
- ‘In matters of science, curiosity gratified begets not indolence, but new desires.’
- Chapter 15, “The world was tired out with geological theories” (p. 153)
- The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time; and while we listened with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was now unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became sensible how much farther reason may sometimes go than imagination can venture to follow.
- Chapter 15, “The world was tired out with geological theories” (p. 160)
- Darwin had found a way in which a species could be shaped to fit its environment—not by divine intervention, not by mind, but through the steady, relentless working of natural law. Just like the Huttonian prescription for the Earth, it was a Newtonian scheme for life. For better or worse, Darwin transformed our view of our place in the universe. Humans too are not the outcome of a divine design, but simply products of the relentless workings of natural laws, just like rivers and mountains, beetles and whales.
- Chapter 20, “It altered the tone of one’s mind” (p. 208)
- Humans and their petty doings come and go, but the geology endures.
- Epilogue (p. 223)
- "...Why Nimrod? Why that name?"
Ramrod straight, he looked down at her. "I guess you skipped Bible studies at school. Genesis 10, verses 8 to 10: 'And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth... And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and-"
"It was only generations after the flood of Noah. Chapter 11, verse 4. 'And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.'"
"But God struck them down when they built the tower."
"Yes. But why? 11, 6. 'Now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.' That's what God said about mankind. He feared us, and so He struck us down. We have that verse up on the wall on big banners, to motivate the workforce. 'Nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.'"
"Wow," Thandie said. "You're challenging God?"
"Why the hell not?"
- Chapter 90
About Stephen Baxter
- [F]olks would better off dipping their heads in a bucket of liquid [nitrogen] and battering them against a tree very very hard than reading Baxter's Titan. It would not surprise me if reading that book causes birth defects.
- As I've often said, I'm a fan of hard SF. No, it's more like I am addicted to it, even the stepped-on 20 times and cut with powered milk and rat-poison sort of hard SF. This gets us to Stephen Baxter's Mayflower II, published last year in a limited edition from PS Publishing. In one of the great tragedies of publishing, it was not a limited enough edition and so I have read it.