Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Slowing down before speeding up again

I haven't written a post for a long time, and neither have I produced many new paintings for The Book. There are two reasons for that; I will explain both, and will show some sketches of what is going on.

The first reason was that I was facing two complicated concepts. The Book at that point counted over 100 pages, meaning over 50 full paintings, not counting maps, scale drawings and additional smaller illustrations. I had kept the work on hexapods for last. Hexapods largely take the position of terrestrial vertebrates on Earth. They also represent a similar degree of adaptive radiation, so there are burrowing animals, animals analogue to amphibians, predators, brachiators, and much else. Some returned to the sea, and there is at least one group, but probably two, that have learned to fly. I had aimed to devote at least 15 full paintings to hexapods, keeping them for last. I actually have quite a few oil paintings of hexapods that I could simply paint again, now digitally, and most importantly better. But I was no longer satisfied with two important design considerations: their jaws and legs.

As for their jaws, until now the idea was that hexapod ancestors had six jaws, placed radially around their mouths, with one row of teeth each. I envisaged that the two upper ones would meet at the end and connect, forming an arc in very much the same way as our mandibles form an arc. The two lower jaws would do the same, resulting in four jaws: both the one at the top and the one at the bottom form arcs, and the lateral ones would bear one row of teeth. This provided much design freedom, so the lateral jaws, or an upper or a lower arc, could grow into ploughs or whatever instrument might be useful.
   But over time I became dissatisfied with this design, as I wanted something that would work but would be stranger than the earlier design that looked too terrestrial. My attention was drawn by 'linkage systems'. These are the complex assemblies of often more than for bones that allow fish' mouth to suddenly telescope outwards to double their length, and do other interesting things. I have used linkage systems before; the rusp snout is a design I like. Now, Earth fish are obviously bilaterally symmetrical, so designing a linkage system for fish more or less involves movement in a vertical plane lying parallel to the longitudinal axis of the body. Thinking of linkage systems in two dimensions is not that hard. You turn them onto a three-dimensional mouth by connecting the frontal ends from the left and right sides.
   Furahan hexapods are also bilaterally symmetrical, but their mouths started out as a radial design (here and here). How about a radial linkage system? Now that is a challenge: do adjacent jaws slide along one another to provide cutting surfaces? Or do they simply point inwards, with pointy teeth on their ends? How do adjacent jaws link up to provide an extended reach and yet allow a forceful bite? This requires some serious though and probably tinkering with diagrams and possibly bits of cardboard or wood; what it takes is time...

With six legs, may gaits become possible. That is not the problem. But I certainly did not want to fall into the trap that I complained about before (one, two, three and four): many artists having to draw six- or eight-legged animals simply copied the hind legs as often as needed. In many cases those doubled hind legs moved in unison, making the whole assembly superfluous. One way to avoid that would be to come up with a different gait, which is not difficult, as I explained before.
  But there is another problem, and that is the anatomy of these legs. It makes sense to design legs for big animals in such a way that the segments bend in alternate direction: if the topmost one points backwards, then the next one down should point forwards, etc. (see here and here). This results in a zigzagzig pattern, and if the top one points forwards, you get a zagzigzag pattern (see here and here). With two pairs of legs, one can be zigzagzig and the other zagzigzag, or both can be zigzagzig (or zagzigzag). But with three pairs of legs there is a challenge of how to avoid repetition. So I played with joints that point forwards while the leg moves backwards and that still point backwards while the leg moves backwards. I haven't made proper animations yet, but the sketches reveal that the result certainly looks odd. The problem is that the joints would have very large ranges of motion, which cannot be good for stability. At present I think the best solution may be to apply one pattern for all pairs of legs, such as zigzagzig (or zagzigzag). I will need to do some serious animation studies to come up with the best design. Again, that takes time...

The time did not seem to be a big problem; I had already decided to reduce my working hours by about one third to about 36 hours a week, which would free the time to do this, make animations and more besides.

But something came up. I had been living on my own for a long time, being a widower. But I unexpectedly met someone who is now very dear to me; as I am sure most readers will know from experience, time spent on a relationship is not only time spent well, but also spent lovingly. So to my surprise I found my newly liberated time taken up by a very positive development. Where does this leave The Book? Well, the answer is that it will require another realignment of priorities. And the only thing that is a suitable candidate for reduction is work, so there will be less of work and more of other things.

Some appetizers
I was not all lazy meanwhile! I just finished one painting and another one will be finished shortly. The Book will contain at least two examples of the official portraits of dignitaries and luminaries who are honoured by having their portraits in the halls of the Academy and the Gallery of the Institute of Furahan Biology. These people are Grover P. Uytterwaerde, the third Rector Praeses of the Furahan University, and Profissima Tartufa S. Rulyinka. Actually, one of the first posts in this blog already showed a sketch of such a portrait.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
The other painting shows rusps, this time of the microrusp variety. While I was gathering courage to tackle the hexapod 'jaw and leg' problems, I thought I could fill the time with rusps. In this case, I took the 'flexible evolution of limbs' that is also apparent in another post a bit further. Instead of reducing some limbs at the front of the animal, why not do away with some in the middle? That would provide a supple anatomy. The 3D sketch above was done in ZBrush, done mostly to work out the shape of the head (rusps heads are complex). I did not bother modelling the legs as it is easier to just draw them.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Here is a sketch of an entire animal, legs and all. Fully grown ones are about the size of a fox.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
And this is the beginning of a painting showing these microrusps. The setting is dawn in a dry environment. A group of these animals, called 'baloors', are having their first look at what the day may bring.          

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk

No 'Gigafiffyfees'
Here are sketches of a species that will not make it to The Book. I took the Fishes IV design, and thought they might ebolve into giant filter feeders. To that end the upper and lower jaw arcs would envelop the much altered lateral jaws that contain the filtering apparatus. The tips of the upper and lower jaws can be closed to stop filtering and so reduce drag. With the tips open, water would flow through the filter continually, flowing out through outlets at the corners of the upper and lateral jaws. These animals are hexapods, and their hind legs have formed flippers much like whales' tails.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
I even started a painting of an altered design, in which the lateral jaws envelop the upper and lower ones. As these are 'giant filter feeder fish', they became 'gigafiffyfish'. No, I do not know why; perhaps some zoologist's toddler could not say 'giant filter feeder fish' and the garbled result was adopted as the animals' name. If this is not true, it is still a good story. Anyway, in the end I decided against them: even though they make sense, they are too much like Earth whales.     

So that's why I've not shown much new material. But the outlook for more material is very bright.  

Monday, 1 April 2019

Extraterrestrial life after the Drake and Seager Equations: the 'Nastrazzurro Equation'! (the what?)

In previous posts I discussed the Drake Equation (DEq) and the Seager Equation (SEq), and promised to expand those by presenting my own version, the Nastrazzurro Equation (NEq). Let's start with a quick refresher of the DEq and SEq. Both provide estimates regarding extraterrestrial life, but in different ways.

Frank Drake aimed to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations. Actually, the DEq was aimed at just one particular subset of alien intelligences, meaning those that we should be able to detect on Earth because the aliens in question live nearby and obligingly send out electromagnetic signals into space in very much the same way that we do. Quite a bit of effort is spent listening to the stars to find out whether anyone out there is actually doing that. Writing my post on the DEq strongly influenced my opinion on the matter: I do not expect this method to produce any exciting news anytime soon. The numbers seem to be against it: electromagnetic signals decrease with the square of the distance, so they become very weak even over short distances; short in the astronomical sense, that is. To detect such signals with our current equipment the strength of the signal would have to be ludicrously strong, making you wonder why anyone would want to do so. You may also wonder how long a civilization will keep on transmitting, which is an important factor in the DEq. Apart from the question how long civilizations last in the first place, there is added problem that sending out electromagnetic signals into all directions at once, as we do, seems a bit silly. If the message is meant for people on your own planet or in your own solar system, surely an advanced civilization can somehow direct the signal to where it should go.

Sarah Seagers' approach is quite different. Her primary aim is not aim to detect signs of intelligence. Instead, she wishes to study the composition of a planet's atmosphere by seeing how that atmosphere changes the light of the planet's star when it shines through it. If the atmosphere alters the star's light in a way that suggests metabolic processes, than life is the easiest way of explaining their presence. In other words, does the atmosphere host a biosphere? Just as people are trying to obtain factual evidence of alien radio signals, there will be factual efforts to seek for biospheres in this way. The 'Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite' (TESS) was launched in 2018, and will probably find lots of potential planets to investigate later. That 'later' means scrutiny by the James Webb space telescope, not yet launched. Here is some more information on that telescope from NASA. By the way, NASA asked artists and the general public to produce art for the occasion; one of the results is the poster above (here is a link to the art section). The James Webb telescope will apparently launch in 2021, so we might have an answer to the question 'Is there life out there?' within 10 years. National Geographic has some nice information on the search for extraterrestrial life and the methods to find out, right here.
Astronaut Bowman looking at the monolith. "Oh my god, it's full of stars!"
The current count of exoplanets is about 4000. That is impressive. Not so long ago the presence of planets outside our own solar system was completely hypothetical, and by now we have become accustomed to the idea that the universe is full of planets. I still find it exciting that that hypothesis is now a fact, but finding life -LIFE!- outside Earth would be news of a much larger magnitude. I doubt that life is as ubiquitous as planets are, but learning that there are planets with life should make people think a bit more about life on Earth. Perhaps they will become a bit more respectful of it (they had better). Finding proof of alien life would make me feel like astronaut Bowman in the book 2001, or the film 2010. He looked into the monolith drifting in space and exclaimed: 'Oh my god, it's full of stars!' Perhaps 20 years from now we can look up and say 'Oh my god, it's full of life!'. I guess I'm a romantic at heart...

Anyway, back to the equations: both result in estimates of the number of either civilizations or biospheres that we can detect. And there's the rub: detection! The DEq and SEq aim to obtain factual evidence. And that is precisely the difference with the 'Nastrazzurro Equation' that I propose here. Let me make it clear that I see the NEq as a fanciful thought experiment in science fiction; it is not a competitor of the serious DEq and SEq. If there would be a diminutive of 'Equation', I would use it (it might be 'equationicula', but that sounds as silly as 'equationette').     

So what does the somewhat arrogantly named 'Nastrazzurro Equation' actually do? Well, it utterly  and completely ignores any wish for actual evidence. That makes it science fiction. Of course, the whole subject of speculative biology is science fiction, even though I like my science 'well done' rather than 'rare'. I like films with alien intelligences in it, especially if these films also betray human intelligence, which is not a given. My main interest in all this is alien biology as a whole, and I can do without the intelligence. I would probably have preferred 'Avatar' to be a documentary rather than a drama. Actually, there is such a documentary, but it is only four minutes long.

The NEq deals with the question 'How many interesting biologies might there be out there?' At present, I will accept anything as 'interesting', such as a planet with microbial life only, although my interest might become less keen quickly. I would accept with unmoving spongy thingies on the sea floor, spending aeon after aeon doing a spot of quiet filtering. I would love things that jump, move and fly, but for now, any life will do. So: how much life could be out there?

Click to enlarge. Screen shot from this website
Actually, you can use the Drake and Seager equations to answer that question! For instance, take the Drake equation; rather than doing the actual hard work ourselves, let's use the nice program to do the calculations I used before, found here. The image above shows how it works: there are successive boxes in which you can fill in estimates.
  • First, choose an overall setting such as "today's optimistic" and proceed. 
  • We can leave the first four estimates as they are. 
  • The fifth box asks for the percentage chance that life develops intelligence. We do not care about intelligence and we do not want that box to reduce the estimate, so we simply put in 100 (If we were to use a proper equation, this term would be left out). 
  • The next box asks about the percentage chance that life can communicate across space, and we do not want that one either, so we set that to 100% too. 
  • We then are asked to fill in the length of time that a civilization actually transmits signals. Here, we do have to fill in a number, but it should represent something else: it should be the length of time a planet harbours life. That's a tricky guess, but the number will certainly be much larger than the time a civilization is transmitting. But we can use actual data! Life has already existed on Earth for 3.7 billion years (3.7x10^9 years), and might exist until the conditions for life cease to exist, which might be in 2-3 billion years, according to Wikipedia. So we can put in 6x10^9 years as an estimate. Unfortunately, you will find that the programme does not accept such large numbers, so for now we just leave the setting at 10 million (10^7) instead of 6x10^9 and remember that the result will later have to be multiplied by 600. 
  • The last box asks for the number of times a civilisation can redevelop. Here, we will assume that life needs to evolve only once, so we set that to '0' instead of  '3'. 
  • Press calculate and get 18,900,000 planets with life in our galaxy, or, say, 1.9x10^7. 
We must not forget that the estimate of duration was 600 times too short, so our estimate becomes 11.4x10^9 planets with life in the galaxy. That is 11,400,000,000 planets. Nice! You will get other results, depending on the starting conditions, but the message is clear. But estimates need to be compared to something, so let's compare them to the number of starts in the galaxy. Here is a post by NASA from someone who tried to find out, and the result is 100 to 400 billion. Let's use a nice average of 250 billion, or 2.5x10^11. Our increasingly wobbly NEq tells us that that one in every 22 planets has life. Wow! 
Click to enlarge. From this website

How about the Seager equation? We can hijack that and turn it into a Nastrazzurro Equation too! Let's go for the "original Seager values".
  • The first box asks us about the number of 'observable red dwarfs'. We do not care about 'observable', and we will also allow for other types of stars. Again, we need an estimate for the number of stars in a galaxy, and we can take the 250 billion estimate again (2.5x10^11). The highest settings seems to be 500,000, so let's remember that our calculation will be 500,000 times too low. 
  • The next box asks for minimal disruptions. Let's leave it at the original 20%. 
  • The next box concerns the percentage that can be observed. We wish to ignore that, so put it at 100%.
  • Let's leave the estimate for 'rocky planets' as it is, at 15%. 
  • Let's set the percentage with life to a low value of 1% as per the original values. 
  • The next one is about detectability again, so that becomes 100% for 'omit this box'. 
  • We press calculate and get 15,000. 
That's not very much, but we still had to multiply the number by 500,000. So now we get 7.5x10^9 planets with life. That is one in about 33 planets. Still wow!

So this is the result of the official 'Nastrazzarro Equation' for the number of planets in our galaxy with life on it. It is a bit silly but not idiotic. After all, it is merely a simplified form of the Drake and Seager equations. It only contains one factor not present directly in the DEq and SEq and that is the number of stars in the galaxy. Here's an interesting twist: the NEq reduces the number of parameters in the DEq and SEq, and all these factors have a very large uncertainty. So, and I rather like pointing  out this somwewaht cheeky observation, by reducing the number of factors the Nastrazzurro Equation can be said to be more precise than its more serious predecessors. Well, perhaps 'less immensely uncertain' is probably a better term...

A megarusp; click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
What I like about all this is that The Nastrazzurro Equation suggests that there is room for something like a 'woolly haired shuffler' somewhere in the galaxy; there is room for rusps too, and spidrids, and, well, all of it. Not so bad for a thought experiment in speculative biology, is it?

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Equations II: The Seager Equation

Click to enlarge; composite of web photo with painting by Gert van Dijk

The Drake equation, discussed recently on this blog, provides an estimate of how many communicating civilisations there are in our galaxy. It does so by multiplying a series of factors; none of these is rock solid, so some say it is basically guesswork. That is true, but in the absence of hard facts an educated guess is the best evidence there is. The nice thing about the Drake equation is that it in essence falsifiable, meaning that it is, at least in theory, possible to say whether there are such civilizations or not. In theory, that is, because one of the two possibilities is that are no such civilizations, and it is usually much harder to prove the absence of something than its presence. If someone in another solar system one day decides to answer our interstellar call, for instance to ask mankind to please turn the volume down, or to stop pestering them with unwanted phone calls in the middle of dinner, then we will know for certain that there is someone out there. But at present we have not received any signal, which tell us precisely nothing. It is like fishing: as long as you haven't caught any fish, you cannot conclude there aren't any. Only when you've caught one can you say that there are fish (or, more precisely, that there was at least one fish; you may just have exterminated the species).

Habitable zones (from

Sara Seager, an astronomer at MIT, proposed a different approach. If you Google her you will find many entries, among them her own website. Her reasoning rests something much more basic then intelligent being using radio signals: is there a biosphere? Her idea starts with the concept that life requires liquid water, an concept that certainly holds water (sorry for that one). Liquid water requires a planet in the habitable zone at the right distance from its star. What I learned from an overview of the conditions under which you might get liquid water is that there might even be liquid water on runaway planets that are no longer circling a star. Anyway, take a planet, add life, stir and wait, and you might get a biosphere. It is wise to search for stars with a nice quiet long term behaviour, so the stars do not cook their planets halfway down the line. Lifeforms have metabolisms, and spew out interesting gases that provide a 'biosignature' in the atmosphere around an alien planet.

Life on Earth certainly altered the atmosphere. At one point there was a nice community of anaerobic organisms quietly doing their thing, and then some new-fangled intruders called 'plants' starting using a highly polluting process called photosynthesis, with a highly reactive dangerous poison as a by-product: oxygen. Plants may have caused the very first mass extinction. Later on, animals learned to control how to burn stuff slowly with that oxygen, making a dent in the amount of oxygen, but not a large one, so Earth's atmosphere now still consists of 20% oxygen. And that can be measured from afar.

Click to enlarge; principle of spectroscopy on transit signal
Unfortunately, the detection is not easy. The method Seager proposes rests on planets passing exactly through the line of sight from Earth to the planet's star, so they appear to transit the disk of that star. That process works well and has already resulted in the discovery of many exoplanets. The TESS satellite was launched in April of 2018 to find many more. When the planets pass the star, they alter the composition of the star's light, and that change tells you something about the planetary atmosphere. Of course, not all planets happen to pass through that line of sight, so only some are observable this way. There is another problem: many biosignature gases are destroyed by ultraviolet radiation from the star, reducing their amount. These gases will be easier to detect if they are not broken down by UV, which is why Seager proposes looking at M-type stars (red dwarfs), because that live long and put out little UV. The latter job is to be done by the James Webb satellite, to be launched in 2021 (probably).    

Here is the Seager Equation:


* N is the number of planets with detectable biosignature gases
* N* is the number of stars within the sample
* FQ is the fraction of quiet stars
* FHZ is the fraction with rocky planets in the habitable zone
* FO is the fraction of observable systems
* FL is the fraction with life
* FS is the fraction with detectable spectroscopic signatures

If you study the parameters, you will see that several factors have to do with the 'detectability' of a biosphere. That holds for the fractions that concern 'quiet stars', 'observable systems' and detectable 'spectroscopic signatures'. Those fractions decrease the total number appreciably.

Click to enlarge; from:
But what is the number? Luckily, there is a very nice website allowing you to play with all the parameters in both the Drake and the Seager Equations, so you can see how they alter the final estimate. The settings shown above are for the "today's optimistic" option. Pressing calculate will give you 750 planets, while  the "Seager original values" only give you 0.45 planets. Running the Drake equation with the original settings results in 10 communicating civilizations in our galaxy. Note that the drake and Seager equations rely of completely different detection techniques, that in part explain the differences.

Does it matter for speculative biology? Well, you could say that speculative biology has to start with astronomy, so yes. In the last of these 'equation' posts, a forthcoming post on the 'Nastrazurro Equation', I will try to apply all this astronomical reasoning to speculative biology in another way. Soon. Probably.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Furaha in ImagineFX

ImagineFX is a Bitish magazine devoted to art in science fiction, fantasy and gaming settings. Its webiste is here, and here is its YouTube channel. Most of the content is about digital painting, but they also discuss 3D applications, a bit of hardware and conventional art.

They devote several pages to work sent to them by readers, and so I decided several months ago to try my luck. I sent five images with a bit of text and waited. I wouldn't write this if the result would have been 'Thank you but no'. So, some as yet unseen images of Furaha will feature in issue 168 of Imagine FX, that will go on sale in the UK on Friday 2nd November (I think that this is the December issue, by the way). I was informed that that issue will reach the US, Canada and Australia three weeks after that date.

Click to enlarge
I haven't seen the issue yet, so I have no idea whether they will devote one or two pages to my work nor which paintings they selected. I just thought that those of you who absolutely cannot wait, and who live in the UK, might wish to know. The cover is shown above so you will know what to look for. I expect to get my own copy shortly, so I will probably write some more about it before the magazine becomes available beyond the UK.

Oh yes; a post on the 'Seager Equation' will appear this weekend, and one on the 'Nastrazzurro Equation' probably two weeks later.     

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Back from TetZooCon

I am slowly recuperating from the TetZooCon event in London that took place on last Saturday and Sunday (that's short for 'Tetrapod Zoology Convention'). I had not been to a TetZooCon before, for the simple reason that the timing in October had always interfered with my work: October is a very popular month for all kinds of scientific conventions. But this time I had taken time off in October, and by pure coincidence TetZooCon happened to fall right in that period. I definitely will want to go to next year's TetZooCon. They're fun! I learned about whale population recovery, straight-tusked elephants, the influence of city lights on the biological clocks of birds, music in wildlife documentaries, and many, many other things. I expect that there will be a discussion of the programme on, so I will not go into details here. I will just hint at one or two things.
I was very curious about the Palaeoart workshop. The programme stated talks by Luis Rey and Mark Witton, and there was a discussion in which John Conway and Bob Nicholls also took part. In this blog I have never devoted much attention to palaeoart, although I think it can fall under the heading of 'allied matters' in the title of this blog. After all, much of palaeoart is speculative, and in that sense it is part of speculative biology. Part of the discussion was about to which extent those who like art in general would also like palaeoart. Personally I doubt that: the admittedly little I have seen of the general art world suggested surprisingly closed minds, with some Art Schools not even deigning tot teach representational art at all. Do not even mention digital painting there; that seems to lie outside that particular micro-universe altogether. The discussion also dealt with the current preference for photorealism in palaeoart. Some of the photorealistic work done by experts in that field is stunning. But I grew up with the work of people like Zdenek Burian, who worked in a much more impressionist manner. The irony here is that, whenever I aim to do something in a Burian-like style, it always turns out much more photorealistic than I wanted to.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
That twist brings me to the workshop itself: John Conway asked the participants to produce palaeoart in an art style that would be new and foreign to the artist, challenging people to use materials they were otherwise unfamiliar with. I found that so much of a challenge that I missed the first 10 minutes of Luis Rey's talk altogether (sorry). In the end, I used pastels, even though I stopped touching crayons, charcoal and similar materials as soon as my school teachers allowed me to let them lie. I chose to draw a triceratops in the style used by Stone Age painters, using an Altamira bison as inspiration. The coarse effects of the pastel really fitted the subject matter well, which was more luck than intention.

On Sunday afternoon Darren Naish led a discussion about speculative biology, with Dougal Dixon and me as speakers. Dougal was his usual enthusiastic self and did very well. He had brought along a model of Greenworld (for posts on Greenworld see here and here), as well as many sketchbooks of Greenworld, that were laying on a table so everyone had ample time to browse through them during the conference. I showed a 15-slide presentation of Furaha that contained nine paintings that had not been publicly shown before, so I wondered whether people would pick up on those (so far, I haven't seen them pop up yet). Because this was just a quick introduction I did not provide much in the way of background knowledge.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Here is a slide of a subject that was published before: it is part of the banner at the top of this blog, but the one here is a reworked digital version, while the one in the banner is still the old oil painting. Hexapods form the last group I need to do to complete The Book, taking up some 10 to 12 spreads. I am thinking of giving them a thorough makeover, with important changes to their jaws and leg structures.

I showed some animations that have been shown on these blog before such as the one above, but the bigger projection scale really helps. The one above is of course a short-cloaked cloakfish. Such animations take an enormous amount of time to make, and I had stopped creating them because of that. But one of the TetZooCons talks changed my mind: Fiona Taylor spoke about the music accompanying music documentaries, and made a very strong case that music adds to the image. So I will reconsider the feasability of creating a four- or five-minute documentary about cloakfish adaptive radiation one day after all. Perhaps there will even be a professional sound track. Don't hold your breath though, as producing even one scene takes an awfully long time...

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Speculative Biology with Dougal Dixon (and me) at TetZooCon, London, 6-7 October 2018

Some of you may already know the Tetrapod Zoology blog written by Darren Naish. It has been hosted in various places over the years. It recently moved away from Scientific American to its own place, I recommend it to everyone who is interested in regular biology besides speculative biology. Actually, I suppose that everyone with an interest in speculative biology will also be interested in real biology. Darren regularly discusses speculative zoology too, by the way, so it's worth browsing through his earlier posts for that reason alone.

Click to enlarge
He also organises a yearly convention, the appropriately named 'TetZooCon'. I will simply quote from the TetZooCon pages to tell you what it is about:

Are you interested in animals, and specifically in tetrapods: that is, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, living and extinct? Are you interested in their evolution, biology and diversity, in their portrayal in art, literature and fiction, in the animals of the distant past, in conservation, cryptozoology, domestication and, frankly, in just about anything relevant to the world of tetrapods? If the answer is “Hmm, I’m not sure”, you might like to go away and do something different. BUT if the answer is “Yes”, have you heard about TetZooCon? 

That should do it... This year it will be a two day event, for the first time. Although I had my eye on that convention for some time, this year is the first time that my schedule allows me to go and visit it. I already knew Darren from the World Science Fiction Convention in London, LonCon3, in 2014. Now, one thing led to another, and rather than just sit in the audience I will take part: on Sunday, October 7th, Dougal Dixon and yours truly will discuss speculative biology from 1400-1500 hrs. Afterwards there will be an opportunity for book signing by Dougal Dixon.

I hope to see you in London!

Saturday, 1 September 2018

'After Man', by Dougal Dixon; a review with hindsight

The book 'After Man' is arguably the best-known book in Speculative Biology. It first appeared in 1981, so you may well wonder why I should choose to discuss a book everyone knows already, 37 years after its publication.

Well, a shiny new edition came out. It is a facsimile edition of the 1981 version, but with some changes. I still own the copy I bought in 1981 and could easily compare the two. The new version faithfully copies the monochrome sections at the beginning and end of the book that explain basic concepts such as the nature of evolution. These, printed on a somewhat coarse type of paper, enclose the heart of the book like slices of bread in a sandwich. That heart consists of 90 pages filled with illustrations in full colour, printed in much better quality on glossy paper. Even the page numbers match up perfectly.

The few changes are interesting. The introductory text has been updated in a few places, and these are indicated with a slightly different font, a nice touch for the bibliophiles among us. For instance, the old version states that early amphibians already had 5 toes on each foot, whereas the new version says that that pattern only emerged as the standard pattern after earlier experiments with other numbers.

Click to enlarge; copyright Dougal Dixon, with permission
The middle part of the book describes animals using ecological zones as a guiding principle, but Dougal Dixon has made two changes to the illustrations. These were originally done by professional artists and were based on sketches by Dougal. That process was not always easy, as Dougal explained in an interview with Darren Naish. I own some photocopies of early sketches for Greenworld that Dougal was kind enough to send me a long time ago, so I can say with confidence that he knows what he is doing when he sketches animals. I discussed Greenword, still only available in Japanese, here, here and here. Dougal gave me permission to use the drawing above to illustrate his own skills. These are of course predatory descendants of rats (falanxes) attacking a rabbit descendant, the rabbuck. Dougal was generally happy with the illustrators' work, except for two interpretations. In the new book he replaced the drawings of the reed stilt and the night stalker with his own drawings, and they indeed look better, in particular the reed stilt, that now is a lightweight and slender creature. I will not show them here; but leave them as an incentive to buy the book.         

I could stop here and consider the job done, but I have seen some critical discussions of Dixon's works, including 'After Man'. I sometimes think these criticisms are overly harsh and would like to add a bit of background to 'After Man', meaning the time in which it appeared.

Click to enlarge; Granada Publishing 1981
Everyone is obviously free to form his or her opinion on the matter, and let me stress that I have my doubts here and there too. As an example, let me discuss the night stalker in some detail. It is a fierce predator, descended from a bat that has given up flight and is a nocturnal terrestrial hunter, using sonar to find its prey. It walks on its front legs and uses its hind legs to catch prey, for which they arch over and outside of the front legs. The image above was copied from the dust cover of the 1981 edition, showing Dougal with a model of the night stalker. Dougal is very good at making such models by the way: I saw several of them for myself on the occasion of the Loncon3 science fiction convention (discussed here by Darren Naish and here by me).

Let's follow the scenario of evolving a land-living bat with specialised grasping legs. I would not expect all those features to evolve at once, but that one would set the stage for the next. (Whales did not evolve baleens the minute they entered the water, but had to become proficient swimmers first.) I expect the first step in that process to be that the bat gives up flight and becomes an animal walking on all fours. That will force quick changes to both the front and hind legs. I would expect that freeing one pair of limbs to catch prey and using the other legs to walk on to evolve only after that. (That, by the way, would be an example of 'centaurism'; see earlier posts here and here). Which pair of legs would become grasping limbs? My guess would be the front legs, because they are closer to the prey. But if the hind legs would be used for some reason, would they reach forward on the outside of the front legs, or in between, where the entire hind part of the body might also be swung forward to extend the reach?

My second doubt concerning the night stalker is that I do not think that sonar works well for a ground-based predator, as I explained in a series of earlier posts (here, here and here). Basically, using sonar is the opposite of stealth. I would therefore expect the animal to redevelop its eyes, keeping its extraordinary hearing as a passive sense. So my personal variant of a bipedal terrestrial predatory bat descendent would walk on its hind legs and not use sonar. I think it would be fairly likely, but it would also be much more conservative and also more boring than Dougal's night stalker...  

By now you may feel that all this criticism of what is probably the most famous creation of 'After Man' is a very odd way to defend Dougal's work. But there is a point here: it is very unlikely that anyone would have been able to raise such specific and detailed considerations in 1981. Such a person would at the time have to have been a professional biologist, not a member of the general public. I am not a biologist, and I can only raise such criticisms now because of several reasons. The first is having ideas; even though I thought hard about the use of sonar for a land-living predator, someone had to have to come with that idea first, and that certainly wasn't me; it was Dougal. The second reason is that you need knowledge to think matters through; to learn, there must be something to learn from.

Suppose you find yourself in 1981 wanting to know more about some biological subject, say sonar, the evolution of whales, or any specific animal group such as 'mudskippers'. You go to a book store or ask your local librarian, who will probably come up with the same one or two books every time, leaving you both frustrated and ill-informed. Anything specific would require access to something like a university library, and even there you would on some subjects find less information than you find on Wikipedia now. There was hardly anything to fill the gap between a general interest and professional levels. The information that is readily available now with a few clicks was either non-existent or almost completely inaccessible in 1981. So what could someone interested in biology, palaeontology and science fiction find in 1981? Well, disappointingly little:

  • On the dinosaur front, you would not be happy. There were stirrings of the coming 'Dinosaur Renaissance' (Bakker's paper from Scientific American from 1975 can be found here). But Robert Bakker's book 'The Dinosaur Heresies', that spread the message that dinosaurs were lively, athletic and interesting was still five years into the future in 1981. The most spectacular book on past life that you could own at the time was probably 'Life before Man', illustrated by Zdenek Burian. It had been around at least since 1973.
  • Speculative biology did not really exist as such. An early work such as St├╝mpke's 'Snouters' (1957) would remain unknown to you, unless someone book dealer would decide to distribute a new printing, so you could find out about it, by chance, by browsing a book store. I found one in 1983 (under its original German title of 'Bau und Leben der Rhinogradentia'). I later wrote about them here, here and here.            
That's about it. There was no information at your fingertips. If you wished to learn something from an author, you wrote them a polite letter and hoped for the best. No internet, no Google, no computers (well, except for the Sinclair ZX-81 with a 1Kb memory). The lack of information back then would now feel like a near vacuum, and as a result even the most interested people could not possibly become as well-read as many people on the forums now are. It was in this vacuum that Dougal Dixon used his knowledge of evolution and zoology to come up with not just one odd animal, but a whole book full of them. He in fact largely defined speculative biology with 'After Man'. It was an extraordinarily creative production at the time of its first appearance, and that is the only time to judge originality and creativity.